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Data-mining the technological importance of government-funded patents in the private sector

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A perennial challenge for basic research funding agencies is assessing the technological importance of their investments in the private sector. In large measure, this stems from difficulties relating how private sector companies and technologies benefit from the major outputs of science research, such as papers, patents and conference proceedings. Here, we propose a data-mining procedure to assess the technological importance of patents, supported by a basic research funding, beyond academic and public sector entities. We applied this approach to patents partially funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). Our procedure begins by identifying a large sample of AFOSR-funded patents and classifying their most recent patent assignees as listed on the US patent assignment database, where one can find records of patent rights being transferred between individuals or institutions. Next, the patents citing this sample of AFOSR-funded patents is mined and, again, we classify their associated assignees to estimate the downstream technological importance of basic research investments. Interestingly, while patents directly funded by AFOSR are modestly assigned to organizations in the private sector (~20 %), patents citing these AFOSR-funded patents are overwhelmingly assigned to the private sector (~86 %). Following data collection, we consider whether patterns emerging from assignee data of both AFOSR-funded patents and the patents citing AFOSR-funded patents provide insights into real-world examples of the impact of government sponsored invention. As a case study, we investigated the most frequent assignee for patents citing our sample of AFOSR-funded patents: Digimarc Corporation. Examining the relationship between AFOSR-funded invention and Digimarc revealed several highly cited patents were granted based on government-funded academic research in mathematics and signal processing. These patents became the kernel of a tech start-up by the inventors, Cognicity, which was later acquired by Digimarc. These patents continue to contribute to the patent portfolio of this large technology service provider. We find that one can observe both increased downstream effects of publicly funded research on the private sector as well as insights for potential real-world demonstrations of impact in the private sector via our data-mining methodology.

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Effort sponsored in whole or in part by the Air Force Research Laboratory, USAF, under Partnership Intermediary No. FA9550-13-3-0001. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Governmental purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation thereon. The author thanks W. Swearingen, T. Hussey, L. Sebby, S. Carmack and two anonymous reviewers for constructive feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript as well as H. Parrott and J. Connelly for performing manual patent-assignment classification.

Conflict of interests

JAC works for the non-profit Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation (VT-ARC). VT-ARC provides support to the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied, of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

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Correspondence to Jordan A. Comins.

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Comins, J.A. Data-mining the technological importance of government-funded patents in the private sector. Scientometrics 104, 425–435 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-015-1616-4

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  • Data-mining
  • Citation analysis
  • Patents
  • Invention
  • Science policy
  • Commercialization