LEDs – the Lights of Future

Crystal gazing through patent analysis is beginning to show an intense competition presently going on in the innovation space of lighting with ‘light-emitting-diodes (LEDs) An unimaginable array of light devices based on LED are on the anvil. These are touted to be extremely user-friendly and affordable lighting sources in the near future. What it means is simply the death-knell of incandescent light bulb that we are used to living with. The eighteenth century invention of ‘light bulb’ that literally revolutionized the world and the way we live today, will soon go in oblivion.

Endura LED Light

In our quest to minimise energy consumption at all levels to save the planet earth from the ills of global warming due to ever increasing green house gas emissions, the compulsion of generating electrical power to keep our houses, shops, offices, streets illuminated at will suddenly appeared too wasteful. Hence began the search for new lighting source. LED is the clear winner and favoured technological option in this game and companies around the world have poured in their financial and technological might in the fray during last decade or so to come up with their portfolio of patented inventions.

Less than two weeks ago1, Royal Philips Electronics unveiled its 12-W EnduraLED light bulb, the industry’s first LED replacement for a 60-W incandescent light bulb at the Lightfair International tradeshow in Las Vegas. It is being considered as an important breakthrough in the use of LED lighting technology in so far as it provides an alternative to consumers to switch over from the conventional bulb to the newly invented hi-tech bulb.

The LED industry has been expanding aggressively and there are scores of frontrunner besides Phillips who are creating significant entry barrier for late-comers through patents. Undoubtedly, therefore, strategic alliances are increasing in this area to overcome the patent barrier and to develop technology for commercial use.

What is LED and what can the patent data reveal in this technology area for us? The answer to some of these questions has been provided by a patent analysis study carried out by ‘Patent Insight Pro’2 (Fig.1 and Fig. 2),


       Figure 1 Figure 2

                                    Fig. 1                          Fig. 2

A light emitting diode (LED) is basically a semi-conductor light source. Like a normal diode, the LED consists of a chip of semiconducting material doped with traces of impurities to create a p-n junction that allows electrons to flow from ‘p’ end to ‘n’ end. In this process, electrons move from a higher energy state to a lower energy state and release the balance of energy in the form of a photon. LEDs have, in fact, been known for quite sometime to researchers in solid state physics but few could imagine that this esoteric source of feeble low intensity light could assume the status of a technology that has the potential to drive the global economy and on which the entire civilisation could thrive in future.

The patent analysis study referred above provides some interesting insights that we summarise hereunder:

Using appropriate keywords on LED and its application areas and international classes, a set of 6581 patent families during a sixty year period between 1950 and 2000 were examined. The patent publication trend as observed shows that the real growth of patents in this technology area took from the year 2000 and sky-rocketed thereafter to reach an all time high in the year 2009. The dataset sorted on the ‘Assignee Name’ gives the list of major players in this technology game as shown in the table below.

Assignee Name Total
Koninklijke Philips Electronics N V 135
Samsung Electro Mechanics Co 128
Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions Inc. 80
Koito Manufacturing Co. Ltd. 55
Fu Zhun Precision Industry (Shen Zhen) Co. Ltd…… 47
Dongguan Kingsun Optoelectronics Co 37
Toyoda Gosei Co. Ltd. 36
Sony Corporation 34
Sharp Habushiki Kaisha 28

Using the powerful features of data manipulation, the report also provides details of key inventors in LED lighting research. But of greater interest is the geographical spread of the patent filing. Figure 3 below shows top eighteen countries with regard to number of patents filed. Clearly, the US, China, Japan, Germany and South Korea are the top five countries leading the research in LED lighting; UK, Australia and Canada are some of the other significant players.


       Figure 3 Figure 4

                                    Fig. 3                          Fig. 4

Industrial Applications of LED Technology

Patent classification codes assigned to the patents reveal significant details on the industrial applications of LED technology which have been reported to be as follows:

Electric Light Sources Computer Peripheral Equipment
Heat Transfer & Control Systems….. Semi-conductor Technology
Traffic Control Systems Kitchen Appliances
Audio Electronics Scanning Equipment
Medical Devices Dental Equipment
Optics Automobile Lighting Systems
Computer Data Transfer Devices

Core Technology

Matheo’s powerful patent analysis software3 at our command is equally capable of carrying out the studies and analyses as reported by ‘Patent Insight Pro’. It was employed to gain further insights in this technology area. It should be recognised that the heart of LED lighting technology and myriads of its applications is the light-source itself with key semi-conductor material having unique composition, dopants and phosphors that would eventually turn the sides to make the technology viable in the commercial world. It is of interest, therefore, to see who are aggressively pursuing semi-conductor research in LED. For this, we fetched the patent data with ‘Matheo Patent Software’ using keywords associated with semi-conductors arsenide and nitrides of group III elements from EPO worldwide database for the period 2000-2010.

Our view on a closer look at the semi-conductor research in LED lighting gains credibility in view of recent ruling of US District Court4 for the Eastern District of Texas in favour of a Korean Company, Seoul Semiconductor Co. Ltd declaring its US patent (No. 5,075,742) that describes its indium gallium nitride based invention as a fundamental to LED technology. This implies that companies manufacturing or packaging blue, green, white or UV LED devices made from semi-conductor indium gallium nitride as described by this patent can do so only after a licensing agreement with the patent owner. The patent and its family of patents in Japan, Germany, UK and France are stated to be available for licensing from the company to appropriate business partners.

Our quick search, using ‘Matheo Patent Software’ returned as many as 3413 patents belonging to 1002 patent families. Sorting these on patent classification, it was found that 891 families (~90%) conformed to ‘H01L’ IPC class signifying semi-conductors used in LED technology. Sorting these further on applicant countries and ignoring a group of patent families from unknown sources, we see the geographic distribution of the sources of these patents families depicting top 17 countries, including India as shown in Figure 4. The results shown here reveal a startling fact hitherto unreported. The earlier studies based on last sixty years data and covering very wide fields of application of LED technology shown above place China and Korea among the top five contenders, but our narrow investigation vide Figure 4 here on key aspects of technology on recent patent data clearly puts China way ahead of other top contenders, viz., US, Korea and Japan. In fact, South Korea also does not appear to be too behind the US. The court decision in favour of Seoul Semiconductor Co. as mentioned above duly supports our finding and conclusion.

It does not seem too far away when we would actually see which country or companies claim their supremacy in this technology race. But it is clear that our life styles are going to change for ever with our houses and offices being lit by a wide range of cool, cosy, colourful and affordable lighting sources.


1. http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=42190
2. Gridlogics Technology Insight Report – LEDs in Lighting.pdf
3. http://www.matheo-patent.com/
4. http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=37280

The Saga of Agricultural Biotechnology Patents

Agricultural biotechnology research is characterised by developing genetically engineered plants that have huge impact on global food production and seed industry. Research in this sector consolidated since 1990s and attracted massive investments for R&D across several major private sector companies, public funded research laboratories and universities. Such a phenomenal technical change is not possible without path-breaking innovations at all levels evidenced by growing number of patents in agricultural biotechnology.

In fact, patent applications with USPTO increased exponentially, and their concentration in the hands of a few corporations was quickly observed as a major innovation policy challenge and dubbed “the problem of the anticommons”. Many scientists began to realize, at least in the initial phase of these developments that they could not commercialize products that relied on intellectual properties patented by private firms. Nonetheless, industry responded by aggressively consolidating, so that enabling intellectual properties were owned by the same company, which could then move forward with the commercialization of new agricultural technologies. A record number of mergers and acquisitions to integrate the biotechnology and seed industries eventually followed.

Patents have generally been recognized as a measure of innovative activity in different technological fields since by definition patents are related to inventiveness; the area of genetic modification of plants, however, poses a challenge to relate the raw patent data with commercial technology. Different aspects of research, for example, genetic constructs, transformation tools as well as utility patents of genetically modified plants all contribute to this field. It is important to segregate relevant patents in each segment discarding millions of other unrelated patents often appearing through key-word search. Additionally, a clear understanding of the underlying facts and inputs in the innovation process in this sector is necessary to gain appropriate insight into the relationship between patents and other inputs within the framework of economic policies and regulatory processes leading to commercialisation of new technologies.

Fortunately, this arduous task has already been simplified by a consortium of university and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers by filtering the USPTO database to create a database of agricultural biotechnology patents. The filtered database is publicly available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/AgBiotechIP. In this scheme, the consortium identified a total of 11,740 agricultural biotechnology patents out of a staggering number of 130,000 possible patents. These patents have been classified into seven main technology headings and 58 sub-technologies that are designed to be research friendly. The new database is searchable by entity (organization), entity type, technology heading, and technology subheading.

There are two other databases that could be examined in conjunction with the above mentioned refined patent database. These are:

i) APHIS field trail database and

ii) APHIS database of deregulated crops at http://www.nbiap.vt.edu/cfdocs/biopetitions1.cfm (ISB, 2005a).

As with the field trial data, this database contains information on petitioning firm and crop characteristics (including genetic modification) and constitutes a complete census of all deregulated crops.

APHIS field trial data, available at http://www.nbiap.vt.edu/cfdocs/fieldtests1.cfm is the outcome of mandatory permission obtained by the private sector firms from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The available field trial data can be disaggregated by firm, crop, gene (e.g., Cry1Ac or Cry2A) phenotype characteristics (e.g., insect resistance or herbicide tolerance), and several other variables.

APHIS database of deregulated crops at at http://www.nbiap.vt.edu/cfdocs/biopetitions1.cfm is the outcome of the permission obtained by private sector firms from APHIS for deregulation at the end of field trial of GMOs immediately before large scale commercialization. As with the field trial data, this database is also searchable on petitioning firm, crop characteristics (including genetic modification) etc.

An excellent treatment to some of the issues described above along with a framework of innovation model has been provided in the paper mentioned at the end of this article that can be downloaded for detailed study. Some of the key findings reported in this paper are given here under.

       Figure 1 Figure 2

                                    Fig. 1                          Fig. 2

       Figure 3 Figure 4

                                    Fig. 3                          Fig. 4

Figure 1 and Figure 2 (above) show the number of firms who went for field trails and deregulation respectively during 1992 to 2004. These numbers reflect the number of companies reaching to the final stages of research immediately prior to putting the new technologies in market for public use. Figure 3 shows the corresponding growth in patents in this field since 1976 to the year 2000 which is a cumulative trend of patents on all related aspects together by all participating firms in this field.

Figure 4 that show the patent growth trends by different technological categories between 1975 till 2000 is quite instructive. It depicts clearly that two areas, ‘genetic transformation’ and ‘plant technologies’ received maximum attention within the range of different aspects of technological research during the period 1996-2000 which was also true for the period between 1991 and 1995 but to a lesser extent. The period between 1976 and 1980 saw maximum research on ‘metabolic pathways and biological processes in plants’ that continued to receive equal attention in subsequent five year period as well. During 1981 and 1985, other areas also grew in importance, viz., protect, nutrition and biological control of plants, genetic transformation, patented organisms, plant technologies, pharmaceuticals and genomics. All these areas grew further in importance during subsequent five years. However, the real turning point came in after 1996 when genetic transformation and plant technologies received maximum attention duly supported by the growth in patents, field trials and deregulation statistics and the picture was fully consolidated by 2000.

It is evident that as the technology developed, patenting become increasingly widespread in every major area of agricultural biotechnology. Every successive five-year period has seen more patented innovation than the last period-in every technology. This phase of heavy concentration of patents on different aspects of agricultural biotechnology research by different companies in a competitive seed and plant industry was accompanied by ‘mergers and acquisitions (M&A)’ events leading to control of a better portfolio of biotech patents in the hands of survivor companies. Interesting insight on policy aspects and data on the M&A events is presented in the paper quoted below on the basis of which this article has been prepared.

The original article may be downloaded here – a ‘must read’ article for scholars of ‘innovation’ and ‘policy research’.

Innovation and Dynamic Efficiency in Plant Biotechnology: An Introduction to the Researchable Issues; Carl Pray, James F. Oehmke & Anwar Naseem, The Journal of Agro Biotechnology Management & Economics, Vol. 8, No. 2&3, Article 1, 2005

Clean Energy Patent Index

Granted US patents in the clean energy belonging to relevant sub-components, viz., solar, wind, hybrid / electric , fuel cells etc. are being routinely monitored since 2002 by Clean Group patent professionals of a renowned US patent law firm, Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti P.C. and the developmental trends as indices are being published quarterly on their website.

The results of the above study published and issued by the above group in 2009 is summarized below.

The figure 1 below shows that U.S. patents for clean-energy technologies in 2009 were at an all time high with 200 more patents than 2008 at1125. Further, fuel cells, wind, and biomass / biofuel energy patents were also at all time highs in 2009 as shown in Figure 2. The top ranking countries holding these patents are US, Japan, Germany, Canada and the South Korea, where US holds as much as 49% share of all these patents alone. Japan comes second at 28% and Germany 8%.

Figure 1

Figure 2

 The top clean energy patent holders in 2009 were dominated by the automotive sector, with 5 spots out of top ten. Among these Honda have a clear lead with GM coming to the second position; Toyota and Nissan occupy the next positions. All these companies hold 20 or more patents each, whereas the remaining companies in ‘top ten’ also had 10 or less fuel cells patents. Among non-auto companies, Samsung, Panasonic and Toshiba are the prominent gainers. In this intense race, the long time fuel cells patents holders, UTC Power Corp, Plug Power and Ballard seem to be losing out now.

The sector-wise analysis revealed the following facts with regard to country share:

  • In fuels cells patents, US has 50%, Japan 39% and Germany 8%
  • In hybrid electric vehicles, Japan has 49% , US 39%, South Korea 5%, Germany 3%
  • In solar energy, US has 49%, Japan 20% and Germany 8%
  • In wind energy patents, US has 47%, Germany 20%, Denmark 7% and Japan 7%

The full report may be downloaded from the following link.