Last week's blog on the most influential patents in the 1980s was very well received by readers, and we thank you for the positive feedback.
But what were the dominant(most influential) patents of the 1990s? Which you will recall was the decade that saw the invention of the worldwide web, pentium processor, first HIV treatment and Java computer script.
Like last weeks list, this list of the dominant patents of the 1990s has been compiled using our AmberScore patent scoring system, which assesses patents based on their position within the patent network. AmberScore values can be quickly and assessed for individual patents in our AmberScope patent search system. Bulk AmberScore data for the likes of portfolio analysis can be obtained by contacting Ambercite.
1) Leading this list was US5143854 Large scale photolithographic solid phase synthesis of polypeptides and receptor binding screening thereof, filed by Affymax of Palo Alto in 1990. According to Espacenet, US5143854 has 55 backward citations and 1384 forward citations, and we calculated that AmberScore value of 151 (or 151 times the influence of the average granted US patent less than 20 years old).
This fascinating technology is for screening biological agents such as antibodies and cells so that biochemists can identify them.
The process begins with attaching one end of specific molecules to a substrate. At the other end of these molecules are 'photo-removable' groups. Light is selectively focused onto these 'photo-removable groups', which removes them. A monomer can be washed over the substrate which then joints to the molecule, creating an engineered polymer. This molecule can also include a photo-removable group, allowing the process to be repeated with a second monomer, and so on. Different locations of the substrate can be built up with different polymers in a matrix type arrangement.
Once the substrate can be manufactured with the engineered polymers (and a range of engineered polymers can be added at a matrix of different locations), the substrate can be use to screen different biological agents such as anti-bodies cells etc, which adhere to the different locations of the substrates depending on their exact chemical compositions. In this way, the agents can be analysed and screened.
Affymax appear to be using this technology as part of a discovery platform based on advanced recombinant peptide and peptide chemistry techniques that has been used to generate novel peptide alternatives to protein drugs
2) In second place is US5643826 (1994) Method for manufacturing a semiconductor device, filed by Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL) of Japan. US5643826 has 15 backward citations, 1100 forward citations and an AmberScore value of 142.
This patent covers A process for fabricating a highly stable and reliable semiconductor, comprising: coating the surface of an amorphous silicon film with a solution containing a catalyst element capable of accelerating the crystallization of the amorphous silicon film, and heat treating the amorphous silicon film thereafter to crystallize the film.
In practice, this is done by adding very small amounts (less than 200 ppm) of a metal such as nickel into the solution to promote the crystallization.
As a matter of interest , SEL is majority owned by Shunpei Yamazaki.
Mr Yamazaki has been previously mentioned in the pages of this blog, being the second leading global inventor in terms of patents filed with over 11,000 patents listed in Espacenet (only beaten by an Australian), even if he is not listed as an inventor on this patent. SEL is also of note being a company founded back in 1980 purely to develop and licence IP (as opposed to manufacturing), and so being a lot earlier into this field than many companies who have adopted a similar corporate strategy such as Intellectual Ventures.
3) In third place is a very different invention, being US5111638 Method for wrapping an object with a material having pressure sensitive adhesive thereon, filed by Highland Supply Corporation in 1991. US5111638 has 42 backward citations, a 'mere' 452 forward citations, and an AmberScore value of 136.
In simple terms, this patent covers wrapping the likes of a flowers in a pot with a sheet covered or partially covered with pressure sensitive adhesive, and where the sheet adheres to either the pot, or the material that it overlaps.
On first impression, this seems an unlikely candidate for a top 10 patents of the 1990s list, even if the claims are quite broad. But there are good reasons for this inclusion.
This patent was invented by Donald Weder, who also made the list of leading patent filers blog, in 7th place (and in fact the USPTO have placed Weber as the US's leading inventor by combining his design and standard patents, ahead of Thomas Edison, whilst our top filers blog only referred to standard patents). Weber's family company Highland Supply Corporation of Illinois claims to supply over 12,000 products to the floricultural industry, and to be the world's leading supplier of floral packaging solutions.
An analysis of the forward cites to this patent, as well as an AmberScope analysis, has confirmed that this patent sits near a centre of a large and tight cluster of related patents, the vast majority also invented by Weder. Being at the centre of a large and tight cluster will boost the AmberScore value of a patent compared to patents with the same number of forward citations, but where these citations are not connected to each other. This explains the high AmberScore value for a comparatively low number of forward citations.
4) Continuing the no doubt very surprising floral theme is the 4th ranked patent US5523520 Mutant dwarfism gene of petunia, filed by Goldsmith Seeds Inc. in 1994, and now owned by Sygenta. US5523520 has just 3 backward citations, 1787 forward citations and an AmberScore value of 131.
Why would dwarf petunias have attracted so much attention? Sygenta claims to be one of the largest wholesale breeders of hybrid flowers in the world. But the real reason may be that it was one of the first genetically engineered commercial plants, hence just the 3 backward patent citations compared to its 1787 forward citations. A review of the forward citations showed that the company with the most forward citations is Monsanto, with over 800 forward citations from patents covering genetically engineered variants of a broad variety of plants, ranging from soya beans to cotton.
5) Electrical engineers will no doubt be pleased that the reminder of the patents in this list are all concerned with ICT. In 5th position is US5172338 Multi-state EEprom read and write circuits and techniques to Sundisk Corporation of California (1990). This patent has 9 backward citations, 1049 forward citations and an AmberScore value of 120.
Electrical engineers would also recognise that an 'EEPROM refers to a predecessor of the solid state memory that stores data in modern smartphones and tablets, as well as USB memory sticks. The improvement claimed in this patent is the ability to store information in each memory cell in more than one 'state' of information (voltage level), so improving the amount of data that could be stored.
6) In 6th position is US5177567 Thin-film structure for chalcogenide electrical switching devices and process therefor, filed by Energy Conversion Devices in July 1991, and now owned by Ovonyx of Michigan. US5177567 has 6 backward citations, 513 forward citations and an AmberScore value of 115.
This patent claims an improved structure of an alternative type of solid state memory based upon the alternating physical state of chalcogenides (a type of chemical compound). These types of flash memory are known as phase change memory, in which the chalcogenides can be either set to be in an amorphous (non-crystalline) state with high electrical resistance, or in a crystalline state with low electrical resistance. Hence data can be stored via its state of electrical resistance. The claims of this patent are focused on the structure of the cell, in particular the layout of the insulation material shown in positions 2 and 6 in the figure below, which surround the central body ofchalcogenide shown in position 3.
Ovonyx was founded in 1999 to commercialise phase change flash memory as originally invented by Stanley Ovshinsky of Energy Conversion Devices, who are thought to be the world's largest manufacturers of flexible solar cells. Phase Change memory is attractive to the ICT industry because it promise the potential of very fast programming time, although its temperature sensitivity is a known drawback.
7) Another EEPROM patent is in 7th place, namely US6011725 Two bit non-volatile electrically erasable and programmable semiconductor memory cell utilizing asymmetrical charge trapping, filed by Saifun Semiconductors (now Spansion) in 1999. US6011725 has 45 backward citations, 956 forward citations, an AmberScore value of 111, and claims an innovative structure for an EEPROM that speeds up the rate that it can be read and erased.
8) In lucky number 8th position is US5848932 Method of playing game and gaming games with an additional payout indicator, filed by Anchor Gaming in 1997 and now owed by IGT. US5848932 has 18 backward citations, 724 forward citations, and an AmberScore value of 110. This invention covers a slot machine with an additional payout indicator controlled by mechanical means, such as the dial shown at the top of the slot machine below. Bonus payouts are now a very common feature of such slot machines, providing an additional incentive for punters to keep playing.
9) In 9th position is US5661506 Pen and paper information recording system using an imaging pen , filed by SIA Technology in 1994. US5661506 has 34 backward citations, 1231 forward citations, and an AmberScore value of 109.
This invention covers a system for writing on a piece of paper covered with a pre-recorded pattern of pixels, invisible from the naked eye. A small camera on a pen records the position of the pen via these 'invisible' markings and passes this position back to a computer which is able to record the markings being made on the paper.
This is a predecessor of the so-called smart pen which is commonly used by graphic designers and other users of computers. One example of this is the LiveScribe pen, which in turn is based on Anoto intellectual property, which appears to be very similar to the SIA invention. The most cited patent in the Anoto patent portfolio is US5852434, which has an AmberScore of 95, enough for it to appear in 18th position on this same list (and a second Anoto patent appears in 21st position).
10) And completing the list of top 10 patents is another patents from Energy Conversion Devices (now owned by Ovonyx), namely US5166758 Electrically erasable phase change memory which was filed in January 1991. US5166758 has 6 backward citations, 536 forward citations and an AmberScore value of 108. This claims a different aspect of the concept discussed in the later filed #6 ranked patent, namely the broad concept of using change in cell electrical resistance to store data in solid state memory, as opposed to changes in cell voltage as discussed by the #5 ranked patent in our list.
And positions 11 to 20? These include patents for surgical implants, e-commerce, wireless data transfer, semiconductors, smartphone and more patents for solid state memory.
Discussion - the value of AmberScore.
This review of the most domianant of the 1990s has perhaps produced a few surprises. Some of the inventions should not surprise, such as inventions in the areas of improved medical diagnostics, solid state memory (essential for the battery life achievable in modern smartphones and tablet computers), genetically engineered plants, and gaming machines which have become ubiquitous in many countries. Other patents in this list might surprise, such an invention for floral wrap.
So what does this tell you about the value of AmberScore? AmberScore is a guide to highly connected patents. Highly connected patents indicate areas of high patent density, which in turn should suggest areas of high commercial potential, as applicants will typically only file patents in areas that they think could make them money. As with other 'predictions' of the future, the potential may not work out, or take longer than expected to bear fruit. An analogy can be drawn with the crowd favourite at horse races or indeed any other expression of the wisdom of crowds - while not a guarantee of success, such favourites are well worth looking at.
In some cases, the potential may have been realised by other companies. For example the dwarf petunia patent by itself may not have created a lot of value, but was the forerunner of Monsanto's significant business with genetically engineered plants such as roundup ready soybean. Similarly while we have no direct evidence that the SIA patent has been commercialised, the very similar patent filed by Anoto has been commercialised by LiveScribe and possibly other companies.
In other cases, the IP may have been licensed out to other companies, such as the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory patent for an improved semi-conductor, or may yet to be successfully commercialised despite clear potential, such as the inventions for a phase change memory.
Another observation is that these patents all have a small number of backward citations compared to a very large number of forward citations, suggesting that they were ground-breaking patents in their field.
And this shows the value of AmberScore. It is not designed to replace the normal commercial and legal evaluation of the value of a technology or a patent. But it does suggest where to start looking for such value, which can be very helpful when faced with a large portfolio of patents to consider, and without the time and resources to look individually at all of these patents.