The Download: Washington lags other metros in approved patents, study finds

February 3, 2013

Well, Washington, you are smart but not very inventive.

That’s one of the take-aways from a Brookings Institution study released on Friday that shows the Washington region trails many major metropolitan regions in number of approved patents.

The report found that Washington area residents were granted an average of 1,479 patents each year between 2007 and 2011. That ranks the region 17th out of 358 metropolitan areas. When you divide that figure per one thousand workers for a more equitable comparison, Washington’s position falls to 135 out of 358.

That puts the District and its surrounding suburbs behind such assumed front-runners as San Francisco, Boston and New York, but also behind such places as Portland, Houston — Houston?! — and Atlanta.

The figures are surprising, in part, because Washington is widely regarded as having one of the nation’s most highly educated workforces. It consistently ranks among the top regions for having the most people who hold post-secondary degrees.

But the disconnect between degrees and patents can be attributed in part to the jobs that power Washington’s economy. Even the majority of technology jobs here are centered around the federal government or integrating technology created by other firms.

“There is a whole lot of activity in our area that has nothing to do with innovation,” said Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow at Brookings and the report’s author. “The federal government and much of the administrators, the lobbyists, the huge nonprofit sector here, are not at all involved in innovation.”

What’s more, the patent’s location is determined by the residence of the inventor, so a company with its headquarters in Washington but research facilities elsewhere may not contribute to the local tally, Rothwell explained.

For 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health, led the region’s employers with 140 patents. Rounding out the top five were the Navy (139 patents), IBM (84), AOL (81) and Nextel Communications (58).

Rothwell adds that the region’s lack of a major research university with highly rated programs in science, technology, engineering and math may contribute to the disparity between degrees and patents. Two-thirds of all patents come from areas with at least one top research university, he said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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