Which emerging market universities are driving growth in patent filing?

– 2021 was the 12th consecutive year of growth in international patent filings

– Led by China, emerging markets are increasingly prominent in the space

– Universities have a key role to play in boosting innovation

– Higher education can both drive R&D and safeguard intellectual property

Last year was record-breaking in terms of the filing of international patents, with several emerging markets scoring highly in global rankings. In many such countries, higher education is playing an ever-more significant role in driving innovation and expanding intellectual property.

According to the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a record 277,500 international patents were filed in 2021.

This figure constitutes a 0.9% increase on 2020 and represents the 12th consecutive year of growth.

China was once again the world's top filer, having overtaken the US in 2019.

Revealingly, the largest share of patents was in the field of computer technology, with 9.9% of the total, followed by digital communication and medical technology.

Some emerging markets saw impressive growth. Notably, Turkey’s total international patent applications rose from 1616 to 1829.

Other emerging economies that performed well on this metric were Saudi Arabia, coming in at 25th overall, Brazil (27th), South Africa (35th), Chile (36th), Mexico (37th) and Thailand (38th).

Higher education and patents

In mature economies, higher education institutions contribute in various ways to a country's efforts in the fields of research and innovation – one measure of which is the number of patents filed.

By contrast, universities in emerging economies have traditionally generated fewer patents, due to factors ranging from lower levels of public funding to limited collaboration between industry and academia.

However, some of the emerging markets that scored highly in the WIPO rankings have taken steps to develop a dynamic and innovative higher education ecosystem.

This in turn contributes to broader national goals of advancing the economy and developing high-value industries.

Protecting and expanding intellectual property

Universities have an important role to play in developing a culture in which intellectual property (IP) is both developed and protected.

For example, Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University Intellectual Property Institute – founded in 1996 – is responsible for protecting the IP of researchers at the university, as well as national and international patent and copyright registration.

The institute also supports the application of research in industrial and social contexts, serving as an interface between academia and society as whole.

Thailand came 43rd in the Global Innovation Index 2021, making it one of the highest-placed emerging markets. While its success in this regard is not due solely to its dynamic higher education IP ecosystem, the report accompanying the index highlighted the country’s competitive “knowledge and technology outputs”.

In India, meanwhile, the University Grants Commission works towards a similar end, by mandating the establishment of IP protection centres at higher education institutions.

In combination with several other national initiatives – such as a reduction in fees associated with filing a patent, or the fact that the National Institutional Ranking Framework now takes patents into account – this has led to increased patent filing and commercialisation on the part of Indian universities.

Private sector collaboration

In terms of countries where higher education operates in a well-developed symbiotic relationship with business, Saudi Arabia is a good example.

The Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted US Utility Patents is a ranking published annually by the National Academy of Inventors, a US-based non-profit.

In the most recent ranking, covering 2020, Saudi universities feature prominently, positioning the Kingdom as a leading emerging economy on the list.

For instance, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals came in at 14th, making it the second-highest-ranked university outside the US, after China’s Tsinghua University (9th).

Meanwhile, King Abdulaziz University came in 33rd place. Of the 71 patents it was granted, 27 were in the health care sector, 22 in development industries, 18 in natural resources development, and four in artificial intelligence and IT.

Saudi universities' overall performance reflects how closely the Kingdom’s higher education institutions work with industry on issues related to IP.

A good example of this principle at work are the chairs established at Saudi universities by SABIC, a chemical manufacturing firm that is a subsidiary of the national oil and gas company, Saudi Aramco.

SABIC has endowed various chairs at Saudi universities, with a view to driving research and innovation and encouraging collaboration on closely related goals, including one at the King Saud University focused on research into polymers, and another at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals related to corrosion materials.

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