Mining patent data can help entrepreneurial universities

14-06-21 USAf 0 comment

Mr Dawid Prozesky (right), Senior Associate and Patent Attorney at KISCH IP, the law firm which assists a lot of South African universities with their intellectual property portfolios, revealed the useful and wondrous secrets of patent literature at the Executive Leadership Workshop in Stellenbosch earlier this month.

Speaking on The role of intellectual property at the entrepreneurial university, Prozesky explained how universities can use the aggregated data in patent literature to align their research projects with commercialisable technology. He said people pursue patent protection at great cost because they believe their technology has commercial application. “So when we talk about patent literature, we’re talking about looking into the minds of companies and organisations around the world, and seeing what they deem to be commercialisable technologies,“ he said.

If they then filter this information to focus on a specific field, “we can start identifying trends in terms of technology development. And not just technology development for the sake of technology development, but technology development for application. We can see who’s driving those trends, we can even see where those trends are manifesting,” said Prozesky.

Using a 2018 study KISCH IP did with regard to autonomous mining vehicles, he showed the kind of information a Power BI (business innovation) dashboard can reveal. This included which companies are filing patent applications in South Africa relating to autonomous mining vehicles, and where they originate from.

If you run topic extraction on this data, you can see the key focus areas within a particular field of technology, and you can align your research output with that.

You can even use patent literature to identify people that are true innovators and connect with them, whether for commercialisation or research purposes. And then because a patent application has to cite all those who contributed to the invention, you can understand networks of collaboration on relevant technology across the world. And you can try and tie into those networks.

“There’s a substantial amount of value to universities in considering patent data,” he said, and it is not just to protect university innovation but to leverage the information it holds.

Patent data can open up opportunities

“The second role of intellectual property is that it can inform collaboration opportunities,” he said.

HISCH IP extracted all academic publications on titanium additive manufacturing originating from South Africa, ran a topic extraction model, plotted the network, linked key topics within the space to the institutions, and the facilities within those institutions publishing academic articles. And they found out that, independently of each other within South Africa, the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Chemical Engineering, Central University of Technology’s Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing, and Stellenbosch University’s Rapid Product Development Laboratory were all looking at titanium additive manufacturing.

“This means that within South Africa we’ve got at least three capabilities in this very narrow field of application. And there may be synergy there on a research front,” said Prozesky, saying it was worth investigating, not in the spirit of competing but in working together towards assisting the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Protesky said they ran a similar model on patent data relating to titanium additive manufacturing originating from South African. They saw that two universities had filed patent applications related to this. “There may even be a synergy in a collaboration on the knowledge transfer process of these already developed technologies,” he said.

Protesky said intellectual property, through the associated intellectual property rights, is fundamentally important to the university’s role in contributing to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. “I also believe that patent data holds the key to universities aligning with industry around the world, and identifying actionable information in informing its research and development strategies,” he said.

The value of startups in creating jobs

Other interesting snippets in Prozesky’s presentation included:

  • South Africa’s official unemployment rate at the end of 2020 stood at over 30% with a youth unemployment rate of over 60%. “So it’s almost impossible to speak about a contribution to the economic and social development within the South African context without noting the role of job creation”;
  • The Kauffman Foundation’s study regarding job changes in the US economy between 1977 and 2005 shows an overwhelmingly positive impact on net job change by startups in the economy, when compared to the impact by existing firms; and even during recessionary years job creation through startups remained fairly stable;
  • Economist Tim Kane, a former senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, concluded at the end of the study that startups or early-stage businesses are not everything when it comes to job growth; they are the only thing;
  • The study included firms that went out of business or died within the study period, and they found that survivor existing firms created even more jobs than startups. So when we talk about the university contributing to social and economic development in South Africa, the key focus must be on supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem – not just early-stage businesses, entrepreneurs or startups, but also existing firms, said Prozesky.
  • South African universities managed more than 150 000 patent families in 2018, patent family being a collection of patent applications covering the same or similar technical content. Furthermore, there were almost 100 new patent delegations filed in 2018alone.  So, the challenge for universities is not necessarily in innovating; that’s already happening, he said, “but it’s rather in how to manage access to intellectual property rights, so that it can be translated into products, processes and services towards the economic and social benefit of South Africa;
  • Intellectual property rights can translate university innovation into assets that have value, whether monetary or though impact. Three examples are:


  • Developed by University of the Western Cape, thus is a low-cost DNA-based diagnostic tool to identify diseases including tuberculosis and COVID-19, a form of technical innovation used in multiple public and private institutions across the world;

Trade Advisory

  • From North-West University in collaboration with the University of Antwerp, this economic innovation is an analytical tool which filters and analyses international trade data and assists countries in identifying realistic export opportunities; and

             Research Methods Index

  • From the University of South Africa, this academic innovation assists students in establishing their research methodology and paradigm and matches them with similar researchers within their community.

The potential of universities creating a collaborative platform to mine patent data

Prozesky’s presentation was followed by a short discussion.

Professor Saurabh Sinha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation at University of Johannesburg, asked one of the questions. Referring to Prozesky’s explanation of the Power BI dashboard evaluating the potential for commercialisation, Sinha said they were exploring a similar tool called Teqmine, and he suspects there are others too, where machine intelligence (AI) reviews a submitted proposal and gives the first glimpse of whether there is a prospect.

“Given the collaborative potentials that you have shown from your perspective (as you’ve been evaluating in practice), is there a potential for a platform that could serve a number of universities, or a group of universities – it could even be an EDHE platform – that provides the service where that evaluation can almost be the first parse, done automatically?” asked Sinha.

He said they were now relying on whether some brokerage will occur between the supervisor and the student, but other incentives include publications that drive a publish-first policy, although that then excludes the possibility of a patent protection.

Prozesky had mentioned universities following the principle of publish or perish. In the defence sector, they said “if you publish, then you perish”. That becomes the problem with the patent, said Sinha.  “The work has already been significantly disclosed. So I’m thinking about putting it ahead, and then looking at the platform. It may be that 90% of it is not something that one would pursue, but it assists to build the mindset that these are now the elements that we must look at.”

Prozesky responded that there was great potential for a collaborative platform. “You would draw the most value from such a centralised system between all universities if you introduce it very early on,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a very complex tool. Depending on how well categorised your literature is, you can just run a categorisation search, and identify not just the firms but the other organisations who are interested in that, and by a mere frequency plot you can understand whether there’s an increased interest in this field or not, who the players are, and who may be potential collaborators, both on a research front and the commercialisation front.”

He wanted to re-emphasise, though, that “patents are but a form of intellectual property right. Just because a patent is no longer a viable strategy does not mean the asset is gone. It just means that the mechanism through which the asset will be made available to the market is different. The value might sit, in contracting research or private work with industry, and you need to be sensitive to those mechanisms as well,” he said.

Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, said Prozesky’s Power BI (business innovation) part of the presentation “is what we need in the higher education sector, not only for patenting but understanding who is doing what. The examples that you show there are extremely powerful.”

He said collaboration had featured a lot in the Executive Leadership Workshop yet “I sometimes think we all go on our own mission without really knowing what others are doing in the sector”. He said Prozesky had mentioned just two examples and he wondered if these could formalised into a report for the last two to three years going into different disciplines “to provide something that we could use as a sector, to identify collaborators”.

“Tools like this one you presented fill a gap that we have at the moment. I like the comment that you know we are innovating, it comes back to what Professor Deresh Ramjugernath (Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University) said, in that the gap lies in getting those patents to market. We are not paying attention to that as a country, and I think there is a massive need for that,” said Cloete. He asked his colleagues to think about how they, as entrepreneurial universities, could use this information.

Universities South Africa convened the Executive Leadership Workshop from June 2 to 4, attended by university leaders (mainly deputy vice-chancellors) both in-person and online. It was hosted by the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme in collaboration with the British Council and Stellenbosch University. The EDHE programme is being implemented by Universities SA in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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