The IFI CLAIMS Patent Advantage: IP Profiles for Investors

Show Me the Patents: Probing the Patent Portfolio Gives Investors an Edge on the Stock Portfolio

Understanding a company’s patent position can provide assurances—or raise red flags—for potential investors. Either way, it’s important to be aware of this vital piece of the investment mosaic.

Patents Make the Smart Money Even Smarter

Investment information, as we all know, is imperfect. Some level of uncertainty will never, ever go away. So allocating capital into a promising company is a tough decision—even for the most prudent investor who has performed all the typical due diligence: examining the financial documents every which way; interviewing C-suite leaders; talking with customers for a gut check on their passion for the product; reaching out to lower-level employees to see if their view of the company matches what executives are telling the market. All of this legwork does wonders in getting the investment manager to a certain level of confidence in the selection criteria. But there is an additional layer of intelligence on innovative companies to reduce uncertainty to an even more comfortable level: checking the patents.

Because investors tend to be more focused on the commercial aspects of a company’s valuation, patents—an engine of current revenue and a harbinger of future growth—often aren’t examined as carefully as they should be. Consider this striking statistic: intangible assets—holdings like patents, trademarks, and copyrights—make up 90% of the S&P’s market value, according to the Ocean Tomo Intangible Asset Market Value Study. That’s up from 17% in 1975. With that in mind, it’s not enough to simply take the intangible assets line on the balance sheet at face value. As any investor knows, the assets developed internally aren’t assigned a fair market value because it’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on something springing from in-house laboratories and highly creative employees. It takes an arms-length transaction to put a dollar amount on a prized logo or invention.

So what is a conscientious investor to do? Adding a patent data piece to the investment mosaic is one way to further test a thesis before taking an equity stake. Here at IFI CLAIMS, we make a big deal each year of the top patent holders in the U.S. (Top 50) and around the world (Global 250). We think the sheer number of patents a company holds is an important marker of an organization’s commitment to invention. But there are layers of nuance to patent statistics that can tell a more intricate innovation narrative than a simple one-off statistic. And it starts by divvying up the data by such principal patent indicators as status, citations, families, and documents (for definitions of patent industry terms, see our glossary here). To illustrate, we’ve pulled some numbers from a few players in a couple of industries: Auto and Pharmaceuticals. Here is a sampling of our findings:

Lucid Motors Patents Are A Driving Force

To receive a patent, an invention must be novel compared to what has come before, called prior art in the patent industry lingo. When an invention is filed, the inventor references prior art in order to prove the uniqueness of the new idea. Those references are known as citations. With patents, citations are measured both backward and forward. A backward citation brings up previously published documents that are foundational to the new invention. The more backward citations a patent mentions, the less original the invention is deemed to be. The improvement tends to be accretive and isn’t expected to disrupt an industry or make huge commercial strides. Forward citations, in contrast, measure how often subsequent patents refer to an earlier patent and indicate an opposite effect; the more forward citations a patent receives, the more potentially disruptive and valuable the technology is. Think of forward citations, if you will, as something akin to social media influencers with millions of followers. Those influencers have a lot of profit-making power when they choose to endorse certain products. If a startup company has a forward citation graph that looks like a hockey stick, it has invented something that is a big deal.

The chart of citations has one forward citation number that stands out. Lucid Motors, founded in 2007, has 3,923 forward citations, compared to Fisker (73), which was founded the same year, and Rivian (705), founded in 2009. What does this outsize number tell us? Lucid has technology that has caught the attention of other patent applicants, and their patents are plugged into what others are putting forth. That’s a big positive for the EV maker.

Honda and Ford also have a high number of forward citations, but the companies have been around for a long time and have a lot of patents and applications, so the elevated number of citations isn’t out of the ordinary. The companies have plenty of backward citations as well, which is to be expected in a mature industry that has plenty of old technology in the combustion engine, even as it innovates with emerging EV technology.

Backward & Forward Citations in the Auto Industry

Is Fisker Coming to the End of the Road?

A strong company has to have a strong pipeline. With patents, that pipeline is judged by what the layman might understand as “patents pending.” In the patent industry, patents pending are measured in two different ways: at the family level, and at the document level. A patent “family” is a term used to denote a single invention, regardless of where in the world that invention has been filed. There might be seven different patents in seven different countries for a particular widget, but all seven of those patents are the same. As such, they belong to a family, and the term “family” is a proxy for a particular invention. So if you’re quantifying the pipeline of patents pending at the family level, you’re looking at the number of overall inventions.

Calculating the number of patents at the document level is a different exercise, and it’s important to understand the difference. The number of documents measures the number of filings around the world, so a single invention will be counted multiple times, depending on the number of countries in which it has been filed. An invention might have originated in Japan, but in order to protect it in markets outside of Japan, the inventor needs to apply for patents in those countries. So at the document level, the number of patents pending will be much higher than at the family level because a single invention will have duplicates if it’s being filed around the globe.

Back to the notion of a strong company having a strong pipeline—let’s look at Xerox, for instance. It has some 35,000 inventions in its lifetime portfolio, more than 7,000 of which are still active. Mature companies, naturally, should contain plenty of expired patents because the lifespan of protection is approximately 20 years (give or take a few years depending on the type of patent and extensions) from application to expiration, so alarm bells shouldn’t always go off if the lapsed patent number is high. But Xerox, the once great innovator, which was cornerstone to the Internet that we use today, has just 732 inventions currently that are pending (we’re looking at the “family” level in this example). There are differing views on what kind of metric should be used to gauge the overall health of a company’s innovation because one shiny, new patent can change everything. But for a company like Xerox, which has struggled for years, 732 inventions pending doesn’t appear to be all that robust. It’s a sign that the company is on the wane.

So then here is an astounding number for EV company Fisker: 0. That is the sum of its inventions pending in the pipeline (at the family level) and a troubling figure that does not bode well for the long-term health of innovation there. In fact, that number should give an investor some serious pause. It could be taken as a signal that invention at the company is in a death spiral—concerning given that technologies around EV manufacturers are new and evolving. At the document level of Fisker’s patents pending, the sum is 8 for patents pending. Clearly, there is some lag in Fisker’s grant dates for their inventions in other countries because everything doesn’t get approved all at once around the world. By either measure, the pipeline for Fisker is almost nonexistent. It’s interesting that on July 17, Fisker’s stock jumped 11% on news that the company would sell 100 electric SUVs for the Indian market. Would investors have been that enthusiastic had they known there are few patents in the pipeline? That’s for each investor to decide on a case-by-case basis, depending on individual goals. But at the very least, it’s an enlightening bit of information that’s good to know before acting on the trade.

Among newer auto manufacturing entrants, Rivian has far more patents in the pending pipeline, compared to Tesla or Lucid, which demonstrates that the company is ramping its technology up and attempting to close in on competitors, or perhaps overtake them.

Patent Families & Patent Publications in the Auto Industry

Patents the World Over

Filing a patent is not a once-and-done thing. If a company plans to make, use, or sell its invention around the world, it needs to file for protection in each market it wants to enter. It’s a laborious and expensive endeavor so a smart company tries to file in other countries in a strategic and judicious way. To get a sense of the worldwide filing strategy of an organization, it’s useful to look at the number of total patent publications per invention. The proxy for a single invention, as we stated above, is called a patent family, which represents all the patents held around the world for a single invention. Using the “family” to denote the invention allows an analyst to strip out the duplicate filings from different countries. Amazon, for example, is an inventive company, but tends to patent mainly in the U.S. and Europe. Their publication to invention ratio is around 2.5, which means, on average, they protect in fewer than three countries per invention. Shouldn’t they be protecting themselves everywhere? Not really. Patent protection lasts for about 20 years and Amazon is active in a limited set of countries. If a company is protecting absolutely everywhere it legally can, it either has a technology with ubiquitous demand (anything with 5G phone standard might be patented all over the world), or it’s a young company that doesn’t have a clue about patent strategy and is wasting a lot of money protecting in markets it might never enter.

The chart shows all the patent publications for the auto companies we looked at. There is a Tesla statistic worth mentioning for such a young company: 30 percent of its patents are lapsed, which means either they’re expired or abandoned. We said above that 20 years is about the lifespan of a patent. But Tesla is a 20-year-old company and shouldn’t contain a large portfolio of dead patents, as would be expected from much older corporations like Honda and Ford. Which means that Tesla is deciding to let inventions lapse. In comparison, Rivian doesn’t show much in the way of lapsed patents. So this poses a question that an investor should dig further into. It could mean that a company doesn’t have the capital to maintain the fees. Or that certain markets aren’t nearly as promising as once hoped.

Patent Families & Patent Publications in the Auto Industry

The Corporate Components Under the Hood of the Automaker

One of the more difficult aspects of quantifying patent data is the fact that companies register their patents under assorted names. The reason for name iterations can be as uncomplicated as one employee writing IBM, for example, in the application fields, while another might use I.B.M. Additionally, corporations tweak their identities over time as Facebook did when it donned the name Meta in 2021. And sometimes, companies file under subsidiary names for internal purposes such as systematizing IP within global org charts or trying to keep promising inventions under the radar. (Strategy is always a behind-the-scenes player with patents. There can be a lot of cloak-and-dagger in how a company files.) As a result of this lack of uniformity, the most careful patent searcher can miss a lot.

Because IFI maintains a Names Service that standardizes corporate identities—something we have been doing for almost 70 years—a side benefit of tracking data at such a granular level is that it provides an uncommon view into the number of entities beneath a corporate umbrella.

For this group of automakers, we think it’s interesting that Tesla, founded in 2003, has nearly as many subsidiaries (22) as Ford (29), a far more established company. (Honda might look like it stands out with 50 subsidiaries, until you understand that it’s a much more diversified company that plays in areas outside of autos.) A well-read investor can find information on Tesla’s aspiration to be more vertically integrated, surprising for an automaker. It’s an initiative that CEO Elon Musk has been pushing for years in order to give the company more control over its manufacturing quality and its supply chain—a formerly boring logistical subject that suddenly became the hot topic since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ground the acquisition of parts and materials to a halt. Tesla today makes many of its own components, including batteries.

Investors, of course, have differing opinions about the value of in-house versus outsourced manufacturing, not to mention just-in-time delivery as opposed to inventory stockpiles. And it’s worth noting that there is a strong trend today toward diversifying manufacturing, which includes bringing some of it back to home territories. But knowing the number of subsidiaries furnishes a piece of information that helps the investor confirm whether Musk—or any CEO for that matter—is telling the market the truth or merely trying to whip up some hype.

Number of Subsidiaries Per Automaker

Pharma’s Forward-Leaning Citations

Forward citations as we said, are an indicator of valuable patents. In this group of companies, Johnson & Johnson has the most references to its patents with 724,747 at last count (though we should acknowledge that J&J, while having an enormous pharma unit, is a more diversified company that also holds medtech and consumer products divisions). Pfizer has 602,992. AbbVie, a smaller company by revenue, has 169,352 forward citations, which would suggest that either their patents are less influential or that they’re much more narrowly focused. Investors seeing a patent number like that compared to competitors needs to figure out whether this signifies something negative (their technology isn’t as significant in the industry) or something positive (the company is a leader, but in a niche area).

Backward & Forward Citations in the Pharma Industry

Pfizer: Big Hat, Few Patents

When it comes to the number of patent families in our pharma example—remember, “family” represents a single invention in patent-speak—you’ll see that Pfizer, the biggest company by revenue, towers above the rest in out-and-out number of inventions. On the surface, Pfizer would easily seem to be the most innovative company. But if you look at the status bars of each patent portfolio, you’ll see that most of Pfizer’s portfolio is lapsed. Large numbers of expired patents aren’t necessarily an issue for concern with a company that has been around for ages. And pharma generally has more lapsed patents as an industry, in part because failing a regulatory approval, for instance, could cause the company to abandon the technology. Keeping patents alive is an expensive prospect. Think of it as an insurance policy, of sorts, or maybe even an option, to make, use or sell a technology in a specific market. If the commercial outlook for a technology falls flat, companies often drop the insurance (a.k.a. patent fees) and halt development. Alternatively, they may also keep paying, as a matter of strategy called “patent fencing,” in order to keep their competitors at bay or to horse trade at some future date when it comes to licensing fee negotiations with other companies. In fact, pharmaceuticals have been notorious in this arena.

Patent Families in the Pharma Industry

So although Pfizer has the most patents, the company only has a relatively small chunk that they can profit from right now, in comparison. (In fact, Pfizer has fewer active patents right now than AbbVie, which should raise some eyebrows). Pfizer’s pending patents are about even with its current active patent count.

J&J holds the most patents that are currently enforceable, and its pipeline also looks more robust. Pharmaceutical industry revenues are highly susceptible to steep patent cliffs when a blockbuster drug’s protections expire and less expensive generics are allowed to enter the market. So in the pharma M&A arena, it’s imperative to check the patent status of any target company. This past March, for example, Pfizer announced that it would acquire Seagen, a biotech that develops cancer medicines, for $43 billion. Although the announcement touted Seagen’s enhancement to Pfizer’s oncology position, Seagen’s number of inventions is merely accretive to Pfizer’s portfolio. Again, mere patent count isn’t necessarily the key marker. If Seagen has a disruptive technology, one patent can make all the difference.

AbbVie: The Little Patent Engine That Could

Judging by the number of documents in Pfizer’s patent portfolio, they’re taking what they have and making the most of it. In other words, the company may not have the highest number of active and enforceable inventions, but they are claiming a respectable amount of patent space throughout the world in total numbers. Clearly Pfizer believes its prospects are solid in major markets. Same goes for J&J, which has entered more markets than Pfizer.

But AbbVie has quite a curious place in this mix. In overall numbers of documents filed, the maker of Humira—side note: Humira’s key U.S. patent protection expired this year, and biosimilars have moved into the market—would seem to have the least international reach. But its average family size is 11 publications per invention, which means they’re seeking more protection in more countries per invention than Pfizer (5.5) or J&J (9). AbbVie has banked on relatively few inventions, but the company has confidence in the broad marketability of them. And Seagen, Pfizer’s 26-year-old acquisition target, has an eye-popping 14 publications plus per invention. Either they’re making the same error that many younger companies make in filing more broadly than needed or they have strong evidence that demand for their technologies spans far and wide.

Company Count of Individual Publications Count of Simple Families Average Family Size
Pfizer Inc 385987 69109 5.59
Johnson & Johnson 362775 40470 8.96
AbbVie Inc 90122 8189 11.01
Seagen Inc 4040 282 14.33