ANNAPOLIS – If patents are an indicator of inventiveness, Maryland is edging out rival Virginia in that corner of the technology economy wars.
From Jan. 1 to April 3, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded 540 patents to inventors, both amateur and professional, in Maryland. Many of those patents are biotechnology patents, indicative of the state’s flourishing bioscience industry.
By contrast, 454 patents were granted to applicants with at least one inventor from Virginia in the same time period, according to an analysis of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s patent database. Virginia’s patent classifications were dominated by its chief technology industries: information and telecommunications.
The difference in number of patents enlarges when population is considered: Maryland’s has 5.3 million people, compared with Virginia’s 7.08 million.
Patents are different from trademarks. Patents protect inventions, while trademarks are brand names — the words or symbols that identify a certain product or company.
Inventors may keep their patents, sell the complete rights to assignees, or rent them temporarily to a licensee. Patent rights last 14 years for ornamental designs, and 17 years for utilities, processes or inventions.
In fact, Maryland inventors, with 9,770, were awarded more patents in the past five years than Virginia inventors, who received 7,530. The overlap — patents awarded to inventor teams with members from both states — was 879 during that time period.
Different regions tend to produce different inventions, so patent applications tend to vary by state and region of the country, said Richard Apley, director of the U.S. patent office’s Office of Independent Inventors Program. In other words, most of a state’s patents are likely to be related to its major industry.
“Maryland is diverse,” Apley said. “But it’s probably dominated by the I- 270 corridor.”
The stretch of office buildings along I-270 in Montgomery County is home to numerous biotechnology companies, which have clustered together to form the third-largest biotechnology center in the United States.
Robert Eaton, MdBio president, agreed with Apley, saying that 60 to 70 percent of Maryland’s biotech companies are clustered in Montgomery County. MdBio is a non-profit organization supporting the state’s bioscience industry.
Some of the companies sprang up as the natural result of a critical mass of scientific minds working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda or Walter Reed Army Medical Center just over the District of Columbia line, Eaton said.
“In some sense, it’s a snowball effect,” he said of the county’s continued growth in the biotechnology industry.
Economic activity that is driven by constant changes in technology, like biotechnology and medicine, makes patents even more important than in a “mature industry,” said John A. Evans, patent agent for Connolly, Bove, Lodge, and Hutz. Patents become very important to protect intellectual property “when you’re doing something new and cutting edge,” he said.
From 1995-1999, 6,210 patents were awarded to inventors from Maryland. With 668 patents, one class of molecular biology and microbiology patents accounted for the highest number awarded to inventors from Maryland in that time period, according to the U.S. patent office. Of those, 202 were awarded in 1999 alone.
In Virginia, 81 patents in that same class were awarded from 1995-1999. Only 18 were awarded in 1999. But it had far higher numbers of patents than Maryland did in information technology and telecommunications, its economic strong suits.
The competition between Maryland and Virginia for high-tech and biotechnology firms is strong. Sometimes, companies will play state against state, said Apley, trying to get the best piece of the market.
In December, Howard Hughes Medical Center, headquartered in Chevy Chase and one of the oldest and largest biotech companies in Maryland, chose to build a new $500 million biomedical research center in Loudon County, Va. The decision was a huge loss to the state, especially Montgomery County, which houses about 200 of Maryland’s 337 biotech firms.
Eaton doesn’t think Virginia will overtake Maryland in the bioscience industries.
Maryland’s private biotech companies are likely to continue to grow, although he expects “a steady growth, not necessarily an explosive growth.”
Montgomery County, particularly the I-270 corridor, is still well represented in the USPTO’s list of awarded patents. Bethesda inventors received 881 patents from 1996-2001, while inventors from Rockville won 901 patents.
Digene Corp., which moved its headquarters to Gaithersburg from Beltsville in 2000, received ownership rights to four patents from 1996-2001. MedImmune in Gaithersburg also received assignee rights to four patents issued from 1996- 2001.
Rockville-based EntreMed, which owns the issue rights to more than 325 U.S. and foreign patents, was assigned the rights to nine patents from 1996- 2001.
In fact, patent applications are a good indicator of a new biotechnology company’s potential success, said Duc Duong, director of the Maryland Technology Development Center, an incubator that nurtures start-up technology firms in Montgomery County.
Space is limited at the incubator, so Duong must evaluate the likely success of a company that applies. One measure he uses is patent applications.
The average applicant has filed one patent, and typically a company might have applied for one or two more patents by the time they move out.
The incubator now houses 13 biotech and 6 information technology companies, and all but two are Maryland companies.
Not all of Maryland’s medical or biotech patents come out of Montgomery County, however.
Richard Alexander, associate professor of urology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, received his first patent in January after filing his application in May 1999.
Alexander, of Ellicott City, and his partner Sathibalan Ponniah received a patent for their method of diagnosing and treating chronic pelvic pain, which affects about 2 million men each year.
Their patent was assigned to the University of Maryland, which now owns it and shares the royalties with them. The two men are now working on a clinical trial to evaluate a drug that blocks cytokines, or inflammation, in men with prostitis.
Alexander doesn’t know yet if he’ll file any more patent applications. He wants to see how his clinical trial, which will eventually involve 50 men, turns out first.
“Maybe there will be many more down the pipe,” he said. “We’ll see.”