BARRIE McKENNA, RICHARD BLACKWELL
OTTAWA AND TORONTO— From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jan. 17, 2011 5:50PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 8:47AM EST
Canada is winning patents at a record pace, as companies push to innovate despite sluggish research and development spending in the wake of the recession.
U.S. patent authorities issued a record 5,223 patents to Canadian firms and individual inventors last year, up 20 per cent from 2009. The U.S. is the preferred global venue for companies and individuals seeking to enforce their legal rights and secure commercial success.
The rapid increase shows Canadian companies are working to dispel the perception that the country regularly comes up short when it comes to innovation, experts said.
At the same, however, Canada’s major trading partners are winning patents even faster.
All but one of the five countries that rank ahead of Canada in U.S. patents are churning them out at a more rapid clip, including No. 1, the United States (up 24 per cent); No. 2, Japan (up 26 per cent); No. 3, Germany (up 25 per cent); No. 4, South Korea (up 26 per cent); and No. 5, Taiwan (up 16 per cent), according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 2010 annual report. The list of companies winning the most patents includes International Business Machines, Samsung, Microsoft and Canon.
Still, at No. 6, Canada ranks ahead of many other large European countries, including France, Britain and the Netherlands, as well as China.
“Some of our companies are getting back into the patenting mode after the recession,” said Andrew Maxwell, director of the Canadian Innovation Centre (CIC) in Waterloo, Ont.
The latest figures show there’s no shortage of innovation in Canada, said Alan Fisch, an intellectual property lawyer at Kaye Scholer LLP in Washington, D.C.
“These numbers are yet another indication of Canada’s culture of innovation,” Mr. Fisch said. “Canada has some of the most productive scientists and engineers in the world.”
Patenting is a key measure of a country’s capacity to innovate, marking an essential step in commercializing new ideas and products.
The bulk of new patents relate to high tech, communication and Internet-related devices and software. Canada’s most active patent filer is BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.
Canada has also seen a boost in the number of patents associated with clean and renewable technologies, as companies innovate in new areas of expertise such as water resource management and power generation, said Mark Sajewycz, co-chair of the clean technology team at law firm Ogilvy Renault in Toronto.
“Clean-tech patenting is on the rise,” he said.
Brent Harris, chief technology officer at Calgary-based Sustainable Energy Technologies, said his firm has already won a number of patents for its solar-power inverters which convert the electricity generated by solar panels into current that can flow to the electrical grid. It was awarded one new patent by the U.S. patent office in 2010, and has others in the pipeline.
The push by Canadian provinces, particularly Ontario, to boost manufacturing of green technologies is helping to drive innovation in the sector – and the desire to protect it with patents, Mr. Harris said. “As people see the opportunity, they start to get inventive.”
And Alberta’s oil sands companies are increasingly moving to patent the tools and methods they use to locate and extract pools of oil and gas buried deep in the ground.
But securing a patent doesn’t mean an idea will succeed in the market place.
“Patenting is a very good first measurement for the number of promising ideas that could become businesses in the future,” CIC’s Mr. Maxwell pointed out. “But it’s not necessarily a very good measure of how many do become businesses.”
Innovation is also measured in other ways. Experts track the publishing of scientific articles, R&D spending and high-tech exports to compare countries, and based on those rankings, Canada rarely cracks the top 10 among the most innovative economies. Based on those international comparisons, the Conference Board of Canada gives the country a near-failing mark of “D” for innovation.
Part of the problem is that research and development spending by Canadian companies has been on a downward slide in recent years. Businesses spent $16.6-billion on R&D before the recession hit in 2007, and that figure has dropped every year since, according to a recent report from Statistics Canada.
The agency blamed the drop on the “start of the global financial crisis” in 2008 and the subsequent recession.