How Patents Help Startups Grow, Innovate, and Succeed

Many academic studies of the patent system focus on the negative, extrapolating from anecdotes about a few bad actors to make the case that our patent system is broken and to bolster cries for legislation weakening patent rights. Precious few studies focus on the countless honest and hardworking patent owners whose inventive labors benefit us all. But understanding how patents support inventive enterprises is a crucial part of the equation, especially at a time when Congress is considering legislation that would make it extremely difficult for startups and individual inventors to enforce their patent rights.

In a newly-published working paper, The Bright Side of Patents, CPIP Edison Fellow Deepak Hegde, along with co-authors Joan Farre-Mensa and Alexander Ljungqvist, take a look how patents help startups grow. They show that, contrary to the claims made by several academics and activists, startups are not victims of the patent system. On the contrary, patents help startups become more successful and innovative.

The study finds that “patent approvals help startups create jobs, grow their sales, innovate, and eventually succeed.” When a startup’s first patent application is approved, its employment growth increases by 36% and its sales growth increases by 51% on average over the next five years. First-patent approval also has a strong causal effect on a startup’s continued ability to innovate, increasing the number of subsequent patent grants by 49% and increasing the quality of those patents by 27%. In fact, a startup with first-patent approval is twice as likely to end up listed on a stock exchange—a common indication of success for a startup.

Negatively affecting startups are delays in the patent application process and ultimate application rejections. For every year an ultimately-approved patent application is delayed, the startup’s employment growth decreases by 21% and its sales growth decreases by 28% on average over the following five years. Furthermore, each year a patent application is delayed, the average number of subsequent patents granted decreases by 14% while the quality of those patents decreases by 7%. And for each year of delay, the probability that a startup will go public is cut in half.

One big reason why patents help startups is that they make it easier to access capital from external investors. The authors find that patents serve to mitigate frictions in information between potential investors and startups. Patents play an important role by alleviating startups’ concerns about having their inventions misappropriated by investors and by alleviating investors’ concerns about the credibility, quality, and monetary future of the startups. Having access to capital in turn sets startups on a path of growth where they can turn ideas into products and services, generate jobs, increase revenue, and undertake further innovation.

What makes this study unique is its unprecedented access to the USPTO’s internal databases, which allowed the authors to evaluate detailed review histories of both approved and rejected patent applications. Prior studies only focused on approved applications, thus making it impossible to accurately separate out the economic and innovative effects. The authors here are able to demonstrate the direct benefits of patent protection with causal evidence from a large-sized sample—45,819 first-time patent applications filed by startups.

There is a surprising amount of criticism of the patent system today. Some claim that patents are a waste of time and resources for startups, useful only for defensive purposes. Others claim that patents actually harm startups. The authors here show that startups that secure patent protection are in fact more likely to succeed. As Congress considers yet another round of large-scale patent legislation, lawmakers need to understand the role that enforceable patent rights play in enabling startups to grow and succeed. This study is a great step in adding some much needed clarity to the ongoing patent policy debates.