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Posted on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 5:56 a.m.

Ann Arbor produces 7th most patents per capita in U.S.

By Ben Freed

While politicians are “reinventing Michigan,” Michiganders continue to invent new products. Ann Arbor has the seventh highest rate of patents per capita in America and Detroit companies were awarded the 10th most patents overall according to a report released Friday by the Brookings Institution.

Detroit, and the Southeast Michigan region, already was recognized as a patent hub when the first satellite United States patent office was opened in July 2012.


Tangent Medical Technologies' NovaCath IV catheter is just one example of a patented device spun out of research from the University of Michigan.

Courtesy Tangent Medical

The report, Patenting Prosperity, used patent production as a measure of innovation, and examined the relationship between the level of innovation and economic growth in metropolitan centers.

“There’s always been broad philosophical agreement amongst economists and policy-makers that innovation is an important part of economic growth,” co-author Jonathan Rothwell said.

“But it’s incredibly difficult to gather evidence in support of that theory because innovation is so tricky to measure… Patents offer an intriguing way of getting at this question.”

Rothwell said that while not every invention is patented, many of the most important technological breakthroughs do get patent protection, especially when they are going to be commercialized. That link to commercialization resulted in a strong correlation between patents and economic growth.

“We were actually surprised just how strong the relationship was at the metropolitan scale,” Rothwell said.

The relationship was especially strong with “high quality” patents that Rothwell said were determined by how many claims were made for each patent and how many times those patents were then cited in later patent applications. Ann Arbor ranks 65th amongst metropolitan areas in claims per patent granted and Detroit ranks 120th.

“This is in large part because auto industry patents tend to be of lower commercial value than patents that go into smartphones or satellite technologies,” Rothwell said.

“Ann Arbor does better than Detroit because it’s more diversified. The University of Michigan is involved in a lot of patenting in biotech and other sectors that tend to have higher values per patent.”

It's not all good news for Ann Arbor in the report. The area ranked 223rd in the country in gross domestic product per worker at $80,474. The local economy also underperformed in productivity growth compared to the national average of metropolitan areas. GDP per worker only grew 1.1 percent in Ann Arbor as opposed to 1.4 percent across the country.

As people like to point out, Michigan has long been a center of innovation thanks to the automotive industry. That history of patent production actually may have held back economic development in Michigan in recent years. Rothwell said stagnation in patenting performance even at a high level may generate fewer job opportunities than a place that starts a little bit lower but is able to reach that same level through rapid growth.

“Many places in the Southwest that were low patenting metro areas were able to experience rapid job growth initially, but then saw huge spikes in unemployment when the economy slowed because they had no exports to rely on,” he said.

“Places that were more steady were better positioned to weather the recession but didn’t enjoy the extremely low unemployment rates that some areas did.”

The top patent producers in the Ann Arbor area according to data collected for the report are General Motors, Ford, and the University of Michigan. The area also has the 12th most Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards in the country.

The awards, given by the government, are grants that help early stage companies do more research and development that can lead to commercial products. Rothwell said many SBIR companies are either acquired by larger corporations or exponentially grow themselves.

“You see a lot of SBIR grantees around research institutions,” he said. “It’s where you often find companies that are on the cutting edge of technological changes.”

Ben Freed covers business for You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


An Arborigine

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 8:20 p.m.

Nicely done citizens of AA, yet another top ten list, woooohooooo


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 3:25 p.m.

OK, so lot of interesting stuff here: "The top patent producers in the Ann Arbor area according to data collected for the report are General Motors, Ford, and the University of Michigan." Do they count the residence of the person, or the business? I'm guessing the person, or there would be no GM or Ford patents in AA - no Ford or GM plant in AA anymore. "Ann Arbor does better than Detroit because it's more diversified. " Wait, what? I thought we just got done saying that GM and Ford accounted for most of the patents. One thing about patents is that it has a lot to do with who is willing to foot the bill for all the work involved to get it approved. Sometimes companies want to look innovative and will push employees to patent everything. Sometimes they want to save money and will discourage or not approve applications. Somebody inventing a widget in their garage and getting it patented is not all that likely anymore. If you get a patent on a device, then all the next guy has to do is change it a little and let you sue him. Sometimes it results in a big payout - intermittent wipers. Usually, though, nobody cares.

An Arborigine

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 7:30 p.m.

Intermittent Wipers? I had those on an old Ford...oh wait that was the crux of the lawsuit, apparently not one of those Ford patents from AA


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 6:36 p.m.

That's a fact, EyeHeart. And after the 10s of thousands are spent to get the patent, you need even more time, energy and money to protect it - presuming, of course, it's of commercial interest. Not many individuals have the time, energy or money to do it, leaving the patent collections to tax-funded universities and tax-write off major corporations. Decades of patent suit court battles doesn't mean a victory, it only means you've won a verdict at a very high personal cost - which often isn't worth it and really changes nothing.

Tom Todd

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 3:08 p.m.

is this were the students do all the work and the professor gets Millions

Lizzy Alfs

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

This is interesting, but I know very little about patents and the processes involved. Ben, you cited Tangent Medical Technologies' catheter, do you know some other notable patented devices coming out of Ann Arbor?

Lizzy Alfs

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

Also, here is an article in the New York Times about the study. It talks a bit about how research universities are the common thread linking the cities with the most patents.

Dog Guy

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 2:47 p.m.

Patents are certainly linked to prosperity: If there weren't a patent on the Dreiseitl finger, Ypsilanti could hang a string of blue Christmas lights down their water tower, make a slow leak, and be infinitely more artsy than Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan regents would consequently vote a move to Ypsi and leave Ann Arbor destitute.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 9:08 p.m.

@Dog Guy. Excellent post! I got a chuckle out of it (had to Google "Dreiseitl" to get the full humorous impact!). Yep, that dude sure did a number on the Ann Arbor "Chrome Toaster" City Hall! Of course Ypsi locals know the name EMU students use when referring to the water tower . . .


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

Your link to patent prosperity is broken.