A view of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC from Columbia Heights on April 10, 2012. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)

The typical narrative about innovation is that a small number of high-tech hubs — places such as Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C. — are largely responsible for the bulk of innovation happening in America today. Yet, a new report (”Patent Prosperity: Invention and Economic Performance in the United States and its Metropolitan Areas”) from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program may end up challenging that narrative with new data about patent activity.

In a survey of patent activity across the nation during the period 1980-2012, the Brookings Institution found that some of the most inventive metropolitan areas in the nation were actually places such as Burlington, Vermont; Corvallis, Oregon; and Rochester, Minnesota. In contrast, New York City, Washington and Boston didn’t even crack the Top 10. (Although, admittedly, all three of these metropolitan hubs ranked in the top 20 on the basis of total granted patents). Innovation as measured by patents per capita appears to be fairly evenly distributed across the nation, with major patent hubs scattered across every major geographic region. While the patent hubs are evenly distributed, 92 percent of all patents still come from 100 of the nation’s 360 metropolitan regions, meaning that not all metropolitan regions are created equal.

So should we be talking about patent hubs rather than technology hubs? And should local government officials be shifting their focus away from Internet start-ups and towards the types of companies, such as biotech, that are especially prolific when it comes to patents?

One of the most interesting observations within the nearly 50-page report is that there is a strong correlation between the presence of a leading research university in a region and the overall inventiveness of a region. The most famous research universities are places such as Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Stanford — the places we typically associate with producing the innovative Internet entrepreneur. But among them are also large public universities across the nation with strong programs across all of the STEM fields. This makes sense, since ideas and innovations from the university research lab eventually make their way into new start-ups or established companies looking for new ideas. And, less directly, graduates of these universities with scientific and engineering backgrounds often go on to become innovators and leaders at companies within their home region.

That may explain how a metropolitan hub such as Trenton, New Jersey — rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same sentence as Silicon Valley — ended up in the top 15 metropolitan regions for inventiveness, according to the report. This counter-intuitive finding can only be explained by the fact that Princeton, mentioned as one of the leading research universities in the nation by the Brookings Institution, is also located in New Jersey’s Mercer County. And, to top it off, consider that a growing number of top pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are also located in the Princeton research corridor. In its analysis, Brookings notes that biotechnology patents are driving innovation in the Trenton-Ewing metropolitan region.

This same dynamic is going on across the nation and may be the key reason why America remains one of the most inventive places in the world. (On the basis of patents per capita, America ranks ninth in the world, trailing nations such as Finland). It is the diffusion of innovation talent across the nation, the creation of these patent hubs in major metropolitan regions, and the strong role of our nation’s top research institutions that are the “secret sauce” to American greatness. As Brookings points out, American innovation (as measured by patent activity) is at “historic rates.” Let’s hope that the patent trolls and escalating patent wars between America’s tech giants don’t spoil things for the rest of us.

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