The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract

Trends in University Ag-Biotech Patenting

Bradford Barham, Jeremy Foltz*, Kwansoo Kim
Dept. of Agricultural and Resource EconomicsUniversity of Connecticut
1367 Storrs Rd., Unit-4021
Storrs CT 06269-4021
Phone: (860) 486-2838
Fax: (860) 486-1932

The advent of exclusive property rights for university research (specifically the Bayh-Dole act) has changed in the missions of U.S. universities, as well as in the overall system of technology creation and distribution in agriculture. At the same time, new genetic and cloning technologies, ag-biotech, has changed the range of agricultural technologies being produced by U.S. universities. This work describes the key temporal trends in university ag-biotech patenting, identifying who are the leaders, the key determinants of patenting success, and the importance of local business research spillovers as measured by patent citations.


Judging by the recent explosion of accepted patents among land-grant universities in the United States, the long-touted ag-biotech revolution is underway.  The actual number of U.S. university patents accelerated gradually from around 10 per year at the outset of the 1980s to around 25 per year in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  In 1995 and 1996 that number rose to 147 and 109 accepted patents.  Thus, for 1994-1996 the number of patents secured, 357, exceeds the cumulative total of 335 for the first 23 years of U.S. university ag-biotech patents.


            The top 20 universities, ranked by accepted ag-biotech patents during this time period, are all public land-grant institutions, with agricultural colleges. The top five universities are: Wisconsin with 53, Cornell with 52, Iowa State with 47, Michigan State with 44, and the UC Davis with 32. Overall, ag-biotech patent holdings among U.S. universities are moderately concentrated, with the top five holders having 29% of the total number of patents, the top 10 have 45%, and the top 20 have 63%.  Ag-biotech patent holdings among U.S. universities are almost completely dominated by public land-grant institutions, which hold 84% of the total issued in the past 30 years.


Over time these ag-biotech patent production rankings show signs of strong persistence.  Comparing top ranked ag-biotech patent holders in 1990 with 1999, we find: (i) 13 of the top 20 in 1999 were also in the top 20 in 1990; (ii) the top 2 (University of Wisconsin and Cornell University) have remained the same over both time periods; (iii) the top five ranked universities in the 1971-1990 period were all among the top ten over the 1971-1999 period.  The main notable change in the top 20 rankings is the emergence of Michigan State from #45 in 1990 to #4 in the 1999. Universities appear to develop a “culture” of patent acquisition, which could stem from various sources. 


On university/industry spillovers, the data presents some counter intuitive trends. The literature on pharmaceutical biotech and the high degree of state investment in ag-biotech suggests that ag-biotech should have a lot of local business spillovers.  However, the pattern of citation data show that less than 5% of the citations of university ag-biotech patents are by patents from businesses within the same state as the university.  Nearly three-quarters of the universities had no local business citations of their patents.  This result suggests that ag-biotech deviates from pharmaceutical biotech and that the local economic returns to university investments in ag-biotech may be smaller than envisioned. 


The paper concludes with a discussion of what these trends in ag-biotech patenting imply for US university agricultural research, extension, and financing policies.


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