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Canada losing its nanotechnology patents

Canada has a strong research record in nanotechnology, but a sizable portion of the intellectual property in this area – and potentially the economic benefits – is leaving the country, according to a study by two Montreal researchers, Catherine Beaudry and Andrea Schiffauerova.

The study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Technology Transfer, found that roughly half of the patents for nanotechnology invented by Canadian researchers are owned by foreign firms, mainly American. The U.S. company Xerox alone holds almost one-third of all the Canadian-invented nanotechnology patents (the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, located in Toronto, received more than 1,400 U.S. patents as of 2009, all of them assigned to its parent company).

Should we be concerned? On the one hand, a major anchor tenant can help attract other R&D-intensive firms and strengthen collaboration, the authors note. However, strong collaboration with local universities does not seem to have materialized in this case – only one Xerox patent is co-assigned with a Canadian university, University of Toronto.

Another worry with IP ownership is that a single nano-scale innovation can often have wide applications across multiple industry sectors. Therefore, it is the ownership of IP that “will decide who will capture the nanotechnology market, and who will get access to nano-scale technologies and at what price.”

But, things are improving, notes Dr. Beaudry, lead author and a professor in the department of mathematics and industrial engineering at École Polytechnique. “At the beginning of the 1990s, the proportion of nanotechnology patents owned by Canadians was barely 25 percent. We’ve raised that thanks to massive infrastructure investments by government and universities in this sector. But there’s still room for improvement – we should be aiming to own two-thirds of these patents.”