Mark Schultz: Weaker Patent Protection Leads to Less Venture Capital Investment

The following post comes from David Ward, a 2L at Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at CPIP.

By David Ward

Venture capitalists pouring money into a small startup has become a sort of new American Dream for many innovators. The success stories of big American companies starting with nothing more than an idea have pervaded their way into pop culture, inspiring TV shows, movies, and the like. However, CPIP Senior Scholar Mark Schultz has released a new report for USIJ entitled The Importance of an Effective and Reliable Patent System to Investment in Critical Technologies showing that this dream may be harder to attain today due to recent shifts that have weakened the patent system and driven away venture capital investment.

Background

There has been an ongoing debate in the past two decades about whether patents should be stronger or weaker. Proponents of stronger and more effective patents have made the case that they are more valuable, incentivizing investors and innovators to fund and create valuable innovations. On the flip side, critics of the patent system have stated that stronger patents inhibit innovation since they create a web of restrictions and licenses, inhibiting access to important innovations.

This ongoing debate has resulted in several landmark changes to our patent laws and rules in recent years. Prof. Schultz points out several key changes:

These changes have weakened patents by making them easier to challenge, less accessible for smaller companies, and harder to obtain overall. However, with all these changes, there is now data to explore whether weaker patents really do allow for more innovation as patent critics have contended.

Weak Patents Don’t Attract Funding

The short answer is the data doesn’t support the patent critics’ contention that weaker patents clear the way for more innovation because investors no longer see many patent-intensive industries as a good investment. From 2004 to 2017, the share of funding received in patent-intensive industries dropped from over 50% to about 28%. Prof. Schultz is cognizant of the fact that correlation is not causation, but there is an ever-growing pile of evidence that points to one simple explanation: weaker patents result in less funding for innovation.

Patents and intellectual property are critical to venture capitalists (VCs) who want more certainty of a return on their investments. Pending patents that have a lower chance of being granted or patents that could be challenged at any moment create uncertainty for both the patents’ validity and the future costs of litigation. Hence, the weaker patent laws of recent years have led to a decrease in funding for many patent-heavy sectors.

Prof. Schultz’s report doesn’t just rely on the data to reach this conclusion. It also includes several case studies, surveys, and interviews with innovators and investors alike. Perhaps the most telling is a survey by Prof. David Taylor of SMU Law investigating how recent patent cases changed VC and private equity behavior. Of the 475 investors surveyed, 74% said that patent eligibility is an important consideration in firms’ investment decisions, and 62% said that their firms were less likely to invest if patent eligibility changes make patents unavailable. Almost one-third of investors who knew about recent court decisions said it had affected investment decisions away from biotech, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals.

The data again backs this up, as Prof. Schultz’s report shows that those industries have seen some of the biggest loses in VC funding since 2004. In a world where biotech, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals could quite literally be the most important sectors needing innovation and funding to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, this is less than ideal. Typically, medical treatments cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have a 10-year road ahead of them. The prospect of reaching the end of the road without being able to protect the investment with a strong and effective patent has spooked many investors to other sectors. As a result, there has been less innovation in live-saving treatments, and more of a focus on safer, quality-of-life investments.

Looking Ahead

There is some trend in the positive direction, however. Prof. Schultz notes that USPTO Director Andrei Iancu has demonstrated strong support for the role of patents in the economy with several policy changes aimed at strengthening patent protection. It is also of note that many policymakers are realizing the changes have gone too far, and there are now several pending legislative proposals aimed at fixing these issues. These realizations, coupled with Prof. Schultz’s quantitative and qualitative data, paint a clear picture that all but proves a single point: strong patents promote innovation more than weaker patents. In the words of Prof. Schultz: “Society needs its most successful people working on its most compelling problems. The patent system should support such work.”

To read the report, please click here.