Nov
17

Invisible Innovation: The Blindness of the West to China’s Innovation Story

By

Maybe China is just too far from the smug innovation circles of the West. Maybe language and cultural barriers make the events unfolding in China too inaccessible to Western media. Maybe decades of concern about IP theft from Chinese companies has closed the eyes of the West to present realities. Whatever the reason, the West today seems generally blind to the innovation powerhouse that China is becoming. Witness, for example, the highly publicized list from Reuters-Thompson of the top 100 global innovators, based on “patent activity.” With China having become one of the world’s true hotbeds of patent activity, not to mention economic impact with innovation in many fields, one might expect Chinese institutions to be well represented on the list. Incredibly, the list has ZERO Chinese entities on. None from Mainland China, none from Taiwan, and none from anywhere else in Asia except for a heavy dose of Japanese companies (27) and 4 from South Korea. Tiny Switzerland makes the list 3 times, and its minute neighbor, Liechtenstein, makes the list with Hilti Corporation. But zero from China and Taiwan? The list is related to “patent activity,” but its compilers wisely recognize that patent volume alone is a poor metric for innovation. Instead, they have created other metrics based on patent data:

The Thomson Reuters 2011 Top 100 Global Innovators are companies that invent on a significant scale; are working on developments which are acknowledged as innovative by patent offices across the world, and by their peers; and, whose inventions are so important that they seek global protection for them.

Sounds fair. So sure, the manufacturing and supply chain innovation that has been a big part of China’s economic rise are not expected to make a showing on this list. That kind of innovation doesn’t show up in terms of granted US and European patents. And the tendency for many Chinese companies to mostly file patents in China doesn’t help them with the methodology Thompson Reuters has, which looks for measures of international impact and international patents. But did they miss all the international activity of some Chinese companies? For example, a couple of days before this list of innovators came out, I posted this on LinkedIn and Twitter (@jefflindsay):

Two Chinese companies, ZTE and Huawei Tech., are among the top 5 international (PCT) patent applicants. Lots of IP here! https://is.gd/t2tUb4

OK, so Thompson Reuters doesn’t follow me, but these companies should have shown up strongly in their patent searches. These are innovative companies with products marketed internationally, having strong economic impact, and loads of patents. Being in the top 5 for international filings wasn’t good enough to even place in the top 100 for Thompson Reuters. Huh? OK, it turns out the ZTE’s surge in patent filings is recent and their numbers prior to 2010 were probably too low to make the cut for this study–that’s fair. But Huawei had 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010, a number in greater than some other companies on the list. For 2011, by the way, Huawei isn’t just in the top 5 so far–they are Number One, the world’s leader in international patent filings (see the Nov. 2011 article in the Vancouver Sun). Think they’ll be on the next list of leaders in patent activity Thompson Reuters publishes? Perhaps, who knows?

How about the Liechtenstein firm that’s in the Top 100, Hilti AG. Heard of them? They have good products for the construction and building maintenance industries such as hammer drills and other tools. They have 20,000 employees, including 2,500 in the US, and market products and file patents internationally. For the 2005-2010 time frame of the Thompson Reuters study, Hilti had 327 patents. Not bad. Well below Huawei’s score, but still respectable.

Now let’s consider a little company that was not on the list: Foxconn. Heard of them? They have over 1 million employees and are the world’s largest producer of electronic components, including circuit boards. They are the ones who actually make Apple’s products such as the iPhone and iPad. This Taiwanese/Chinese firm (China considers Taiwan to be part of China, and much of Foxconn’s work is in China) is arguably the real powerhouse behind the success of Apple and several other companies on the Thompson Reuters list. Foxconn builds Apple’s products, and not just as a mindless executor, but as an innovative partner.

Ah, but what about real technological innovation expressed in patents? Surely Foxconn is just about cheap labor and low cost manufacturing, right? A quick search of Foxconn patents granted in the US from 2005 to 2010 shows they have over 700 patents. Some are design patents, but the vast majority are technological. Foxconn apparently is conducting serious R&D and spending millions on patents to find new ways to make leading edge high-tech products better, safer, faster, and cooler (both in terms of heat management and the “wow” factor). I have the privilege of interacting with some Foxconn people and from what I’ve seen and heard I can say that they have a world-class IP program to support innovation, and I feel that they are way ahead of many Western companies in these areas. Foxconn innovation and Foxconn IP may be the real key to Apple’s success. Foxconn innovation is abundantly expressed in patents, not just trade secrets and know how, with an estate twice as big as Hilti’s over 2005-2010 and an economic impact on the global market far in excess of Hilti. But Foxconn doesn’t make the list. How do none of these Chinese companies break into Thompson Reuters’ Top 100? Did they miss the 2010 story, “China Poised to Become Global Innovation Leader,” based on patent activity? That must be from another source they don’t follow.

Nov. 24, 2011 Update: My search on Foxconn patents needs to be updated. Yes, Foxconn has an impressive 700+ US patents for the 2005-2010 period, more than some companies in the TR list. But my search was deficient, failing to consider that many Foxconn patents might have been filed under the real name of the company that owns Foxconn, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. So I expanded my search term to be “Hon Hai Precision” or Foxconn. Now, instead of 700 patents, we’re looking at a massive estate of 5,872 US patents (perhaps a couple dozen more when typographical errors are considered). This estate now dwarfs MOST of the companies on the list such as Brother Industries (2873, searching for Brother Ind* or Brother Kogyo), BASF (2771, searching for BASF or Bayerische Akt*) Goodyear (1152), ABB (948), Airbus (926), Avaya (<600), Arkema (205), Cheil (116), etc. Oh, and what about innovation giant Apple Compute? A search for simply “Apple” (which might include some smaller companies unrelated to Apple Computer) returns 1809 issued US patents from 2005 to 2010, less than 1/3 of the US patent activity of the invisible innovator that makes Apple what it is.

Let’s return to Huawei for a moment. There should be little doubt about the innovation prowess of Huawei, even though they tend to be far more secretive and do much less P.R. than Apple. But this telecom company is big (with over 100,000 employees, they connect 1/3 of the world’s cell phones) and highly innovative. Read, for example, BBC’s story, “Innovation in China: Huawei – the secretive tech giant.” Maybe the Thompson Reuters methodology docks them for being on the young side. Over half of their 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010 came in 2010–but they still clearly outpace Hilti and others over the 5-year span of the study. So what gives? I suspect that the youthfulness of the estate means there has been less time for others to cite Huawei patents, and that may be part of the problem since patent citations are part of the methodology. But to miss Huawei completely?

Thompson Reuters will surely argue that their methodology was developed and implemented fairly, even blindly (a fair term), but someone should have immediately seen that something was wrong if top international filers and innovators like Huawei, and Foxconn didn’t make the list. But when it comes to innovation, innovation in China tends to be largely invisible to Americans, who are stuck in the old paradigm of US being the innovation leader and China just being a copier. That kind of blindness will catch the West by surprise in the very near future when US companies find themselves facing numerous patent barriers from the Chinese companies that will own much of the most valuable IP. China is creating and will create much of the most important global innovation for the future. Innovation needs to ramp up in the West in order to not be left completely behind.

Dec. 8 Update: Chinese computer giant Lenovo, the world’s 2nd largest producers of personal computers, may also deserve to be on the list.

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Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Not only are Chinese companies prolifically obtaining patents, they are spending serious money on both R&D and innovation systems.

    I have travelled to China many times and represent a number of Chinese companies who are doing all of the above.

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