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  • Writer's pictureAlec Sorensen

Preview: Tracking University Patent Trends in Covid

Over the last month, the Tradespace data science team collected data on over 50,000 patent applications from 250 US universities over the last 20 years. The goal was to understand how university patenting behavior changed over the last year, and to place those changes in the context of broader changes that have been reshaping the innovation ecosystem over the last 5, 10, and 20 years. We've shared a few interesting findings below, and you can download the full report for free at any point.

The Situation

Despite the changes wrought by Covid, IP generation at US universities reached an all-time high last year. However, the composition of that IP has evolved significantly as universities adapted to the challenges posed by an ongoing pandemic. In some cases, Covid-19 has reshaped technology investments in unforeseeable ways (like driving innovation in nanomaterials with anti-microbial properties). In other areas like mobility and 5G, it has simply accelerated trends that began well before 2020.

Annual University Patent Applications

These watershed changes in the nature of university IP generation have major implications for technology transfer offices. Successful commercialization is rarely transactional. Licensing officers must foster partnership ecosystems in-line with their universities’ strengths and prioritize technologies that align with market demand. In light of these Covid-driven changes in R&D focus, tech transfer offices need to cultivate new industry partners and prioritize technologies that reflect these shifts.

Shifting Innovation Priorities

Understandably, life sciences continue to be the largest single area of focus of University R&D and patenting. Even within life sciences; however, we observed substantial change. Most noticeably, patenting for healthcare informatics and pharmaceutical compounds increased by 40% and 33%, respectively. Conversely, patent applications for genetic engineering, which had been growing gangbusters, increased at a relatively meager 20%.

Top University Technologies

Outside of life sciences, Universities significantly increased their patenting in energy, semiconductors, and communications, mostly driven by interest in 5G, cleantech, and advanced mobility. For a more detailed dive into patenting by technology area, download the full report.

Industry Alignment

Any licensing manager will tell you that successful technology transfer requires a commercialization approach that accounts for the maturity of the market and corporate R&D priorities. To highlight this, we looked at areas where the difference between University and Industry patenting growth was greatest. We found a number of areas where growth in university patenting far outstripped industry patenting.

University Patent Trends

These technologies relate to capabilities like 5G and advanced autonomy that are earlier in the commercialization cycle (greater focus on basic and applied research) In the full report, we also looked at where industry patenting outpaced university patenting. These areas were later in the commercialization cycle, where R&D is focused on development and adaptation.


Effective commercialization is rarely passive. Transfer officers need to proactively build networks and develop relationships with new partners, often years before a licensing agreement is ever signed. Identifying technology areas (e.g., 5G, advanced mobility, etc.) where universities are playing an increasingly active role in the innovation ecosystem enables technology transfer offices to allocate time and resources towards areas with the highest return on investment.


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