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The world is in dire need of semiconductors. These technologies underpin the cutting-edge products of today and the future, powering everything from 5G to high-performance computing. An analysis of semiconductor-related patent publications, compared to data available from the USPTO, EPO, and CNIPA, shows a steady growth in the number of publications from 2006 to 2020, revealing that innovation is not only robust in this specific area, but is also converting into Intellectual Property assets. However, trends across geographies vary widely.

US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Of the three offices analyzed, the USPTO has the largest number of publications associated with H01L, the class code used to identify semiconductor-related patents, with nearly 30,000 in 2020.

Over the 15 years studied, the number of publications at the USPTO increased at an average annual growth rate of 5.4%. This growth has slowed since about 2014, to about 1.4% over the period from 2016 to 2020.

Source: USPTO

European Patent Office (EPO)

During the 15-year period, the number of patents associated with the H01L identification code published by the European Patent Office (EPO) increased at an average annual rate of 9.4%. Much of this growth began around 2015, and the rate from 2015 to 2020 is approaching 17%.

To get a sense of activity in Europe, we focused on the top European applicants. Business publications in this group of countries had an average annual growth rate of about 7% during our study period. However, the share of EPO publications by these domestic applicants actually declined from about 35% in 2006 to about 26% in 2020, while the number of publications by applicants in the United States, Korea, China, and elsewhere increased even faster.

Source: EPO

Chinese Intellectual Property Office (CNIPA)

The corresponding numbers for CNIPA show a greater degree of volatility than those for other patent offices, but the overall trend again reveals significant growth, starting with just over 2,000 publications in 2006 and ending with about 18,000 in 2020. Much of this increase occurred between 2014 and 2016.

The sharp increase in publications, particularly those with China-based applicants, roughly coincides with the national “Made in China 2025” strategic plan, issued by the Chinese government in May 2015 but presumably in development prior to that announcement. The growth of China’s semiconductor industry is a central goal of this plan, as semiconductors are seen to support broad advances in a number of other adjacent strategic technologies.

Source: CNIPA

Innovation in the semiconductor industry is strong

Semiconductor-related patent publications have steadily increased from 2006 to 2020 for every U.S., European, and Chinese patent office, indicating that ongoing innovation in the industry is translating strongly into the creation of intangible assets. The level of patent activity coming from Asia, and the resulting higher share of publications in the major registries, is noteworthy as it reflects the growing power and influence of companies such as TSMC and Samsung.

Mercury