Corporate research and development departments in the Tri-Counties churned out hundreds of new inventions in 2020, driving strong patent activity that has been undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic.
A Business Times analysis of 975 patents granted to area inventors in the last 12 months showed imaging and semiconductor technologies remain some of the top avenues of research for regional firms. Santa Barbara-based smart speaker maker Sonos led the pack in total patent filings, with 189.
A strong patent portfolio can generate a feedback loop of new innovation, said Mark Triplett, Sonos’ vice president of intellectual property.
“It becomes a springboard for new ideas,” he said. “Maybe we think we can do something better, or maybe we can solve a new problem. You get this exponential reaction.”
Thousand Oaks biotech giant Amgen was second on the list with 69 patents, followed by Teledyne Technologies, with 31 patents for everything from undersea compass technologies to bio-hybrid fuel cells. Other industrial developers like lighting firm Soraa Laser Diode, surgical instrument maker Karl Storz and optoelectronics company Aurrion also generated significant numbers of new filings.
Sonos frequently ranks in the top 300 firms granted patents in the U.S. and has so far spent around $160 million on research and development in 2020.
But quantity isn’t the objective, Triplett said.
“A company or an individual as an inventor could invent something so significant that one is just enough,” he said. “We don’t just file on anything, we file on things that we believe will have the greatest impact for the consumer. The most valuable patents are the ones where the tech is used.”
Around 90 percent of its patent portfolio includes a software element, Triplett said, to manage interactions between its hardware products and expand its platform.
“In this instance, we’re protecting experiences,” he said, prioritizing “things you can do in the space that are real and tangible.”
While U.S. Patent and Trade Office statistics show that patent awards can take an average of two years to process, Mark Goldstein and Steve Sereboff, two partners with SoCalIP in Santa Barbara, said activity hasn’t slowed during the pandemic, particularly among larger corporate players.
“Amidst the pandemic, companies that are well capitalized and well managed have been accelerating their investments in their business, and the patent filings follow that,” Sereboff said.
“If a company is well established and they already have things in the pipeline, they’re keeping those things going,” Goldstein said.
That includes startup activity that got funding prior to the economic shutdown, he said. Entrepreneurial activity has also been strong among workers who have been idled by the pandemic “trying to make lemonade out of lemons and using their free time to push forward,” Goldstein said.
Software-as-a-Service continues to be a strong area of R&D investment, Sereboff said. Market opportunities have opened up within virtual technologies that enable people to work from home. Personal protective equipment like face mask designs, or sanitation technologies have also been popular areas of research in recent months, Goldstein said.
“Once you kickstart something and create something new, it starts to unravel all sorts of issues,” Triplett said. “You start to unlock all these problems that really never existed before … you kind of get this massive exponential growth in problems that need to be solved.”
Patent activity increased over the past year throughout the region. Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were fairly even, with individuals and firms in each county totaling more than 400 new patents. San Luis Obispo County inventors were granted 74 patents. Though significantly less than the other two counties, that’s still an increase from around 50 new filings in each of the prior two years.
The cities of Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks were the biggest invention hot spots, and Goleta, Camarillo, Oxnard, Simi Valley, San Luis Obispo and Ventura all ranked highly for patent activity.
–Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]