Tag Archives: patents

Exceeding the sensitivity of skin with a graphene elastomer

A Jan. 14, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the latest in ‘sensitive’ skin,

A new sponge-like material, discovered by Monash [Monash University in Australia] researchers, could have diverse and valuable real-life applications. The new elastomer could be used to create soft, tactile robots to help care for elderly people, perform remote surgical procedures or build highly sensitive prosthetic hands.

Graphene-based cellular elastomer, or G-elastomer, is highly sensitive to pressure and vibrations. Unlike other viscoelastic substances such as polyurethane foam or rubber, G-elastomer bounces back extremely quickly under pressure, despite its exceptionally soft nature. This unique, dynamic response has never been found in existing soft materials, and has excited and intrigued researchers Professor Dan Li and Dr Ling Qiu from the Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials (MCATM).

A Jan. 14, 2016 Monash University media release, which originated the news item, offers some insights from the researchers,

According to Dr Qiu, “This graphene elastomer is a flexible, ultra-light material which can detect pressures and vibrations across a broad bandwidth of frequencies. It far exceeds the response range of our skin, and it also has a very fast response time, much faster than conventional polymer elastomer.

“Although we often take it for granted, the pressure sensors in our skin allow us to do things like hold a cup without dropping it, crushing it, or spilling the contents. The sensitivity and response time of G-elastomer could allow a prosthetic hand or a robot to be even more dexterous than a human, while the flexibility could allow us to create next generation flexible electronic devices,” he said.

Professor Li, a director of MCATM, said, ‘Although we are still in the early stages of discovering graphene’s potential, this research is an excellent breakthrough. What we do know is that graphene could have a huge impact on Australia’s economy, both from a resources and innovation perspective, and we’re aiming to be at the forefront of that research and development.’

Dr Qiu’s research has been published in the latest edition of the prestigious journal Advanced Materials and is protected by a suite of patents.

Are they trying to protect the work from competition or wholesale theft of their work?

After all, the idea behind patents and copyrights was to encourage innovation and competition by ensuring that inventors and creators would benefit from their work. An example that comes to mind is the Xerox company which for many years had a monopoly on photocopy machines by virtue of their patent. Once the patent ran out (patents and copyrights were originally intended to be in place for finite time periods) and Xerox had made much, much money, competitors were free to create and market their own photocopy machines, which they did quite promptly. Since those days, companies have worked to extend patent and copyright time periods in efforts to stifle competition.

Getting back to Monash, I do hope the researchers are able to benefit from their work and wish them well. I also hope that they enjoy plenty of healthy competition spurring them onto greater innovation.

Here’s a link to and a citation for their paper,

Ultrafast Dynamic Piezoresistive Response of Graphene-Based Cellular Elastomers by Ling Qiu, M. Bulut Coskun, Yue Tang, Jefferson Z. Liu, Tuncay Alan, Jie Ding, Van-Tan Truong, and Dan Li. Advanced Materials Volume 28, Issue 1 January 6, 2016Pages 194–200 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201503957 First published: 2 November 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

Copyright and patent protections and human rights

The United Nations (UN) and cultural rights don’t immediately leap to mind when the subjects of copyright and patents are discussed. A Mar. 13, 2015 posting by Tim Cushing on Techdirt and an Oct. 14, 2015 posting by Glyn Moody also on Techdirt explain the connection in the person of Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights and the author of two UN reports one on copyright and one on patents.

From the Mar. 13, 2015 posting by Tim Cushing,

… Farida Shaheed, has just delivered a less-than-complimentary report on copyright to the UN’s Human Rights Council. Shaheed’s report actually examines where copyright meshes with arts and science — the two areas it’s supposed to support — and finds it runs contrary to the rosy image of incentivized creation perpetuated by the MPAAs and RIAAs of the world.

Shaheed said a “widely shared concern stems from the tendency for copyright protection to be strengthened with little consideration to human rights issues.” This is illustrated by trade negotiations conducted in secrecy, and with the participation of corporate entities, she said.

She stressed the fact that one of the key points of her report is that intellectual property rights are not human rights. “This equation is false and misleading,” she said.

The last statement fires shots over the bows of “moral rights” purveyors, as well as those who view infringement as a moral issue, rather than just a legal one.

Shaheed also points out that the protections being installed around the world at the behest of incumbent industries are not necessarily reflective of creators’ desires. …

Glyn Moody’s Oct. 14, 2015 posting features Shaheed’s latest report on patents,

… As the summary to her report puts it:

There is no human right to patent protection. The right to protection of moral and material interests cannot be used to defend patent laws that inadequately respect the right to participate in cultural life, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, to scientific freedoms and the right to food and health and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Patents, when properly structured, may expand the options and well-being of all people by making new possibilities available. Yet, they also give patent-holders the power to deny access to others, thereby limiting or denying the public’s right of participation to science and culture. The human rights perspective demands that patents do not extend so far as to interfere with individuals’ dignity and well-being. Where patent rights and human rights are in conflict, human rights must prevail.

The report touches on many issues previously discussed here on Techdirt. For example, how pharmaceutical patents limit access to medicines by those unable to afford the high prices monopolies allow — a particularly hot topic in the light of TPP’s rules on data exclusivity for biologics. The impact of patents on seed independence is considered, and there is a warning about corporate sovereignty chapters in trade agreements, and the chilling effects they can have on the regulatory function of states and their ability to legislate in the public interest — for example, with patent laws.

I have two Canadian examples for data exclusivity and corporate sovereignty issues, both from Techdirt. There’s an Oct. 19, 2015 posting by Glyn Moody featuring a recent Health Canada move to threaten a researcher into suppressing information from human clinical trials,

… one of the final sticking points of the TPP negotiations [Trans Pacific Partnership] was the issue of data exclusivity for the class of drugs known as biologics. We’ve pointed out that the very idea of giving any monopoly on what amounts to facts is fundamentally anti-science, but that’s a rather abstract way of looking at it. A recent case in Canada makes plain what data exclusivity means in practice. As reported by CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] News, it concerns unpublished clinical trial data about a popular morning sickness drug:

Dr. Navindra Persaud has been fighting for four years to get access to thousands of pages of drug industry documents being held by Health Canada.

He finally received the material a few weeks ago, but now he’s being prevented from revealing what he has discovered.

That’s because Health Canada required him to sign a confidentiality agreement, and has threatened him with legal action if he breaks it.

The clinical trials data is so secret that he’s been told that he must destroy the documents once he’s read them, and notify Health Canada in writing that he has done so….

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Trans Pacific Partnership is a proposed trade agreement including 12 countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam) from the Pacific Rim. If all the countries sign on (it looks as if they will; Canada’s new Prime Minister as of Oct. 19, 2015 seems to be in favour of the agreement although he has yet to make a definitive statement), the TPP will represent a trading block that is almost double the size of the European Union.

An Oct. 8, 2015 posting by Mike Masnick provides a description of corporate sovereignty and of the Eli Lilly suit against the Canadian government.

We’ve pointed out a few times in the past that while everyone refers to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement as a “free trade” agreement, the reality is that there’s very little in there that’s actually about free trade. If it were truly a free trade agreement, then there would be plenty of reasons to support it. But the details show it’s not, and yet, time and time again, we see people supporting the TPP because “well, free trade is good.” …
… it’s that “harmonizing regulatory regimes” thing where the real nastiness lies, and where you quickly discover that most of the key factors in the TPP are not at all about free trade, but the opposite. It’s about as protectionist as can be. That’s mainly because of the really nasty corprorate sovereignty clauses in the agreement (which are officially called “investor state dispute settlement” or ISDS in an attempt to make it sound so boring you’ll stop paying attention). Those clauses basically allow large incumbents to force the laws of countries to change to their will. Companies who feel that some country’s regulation somehow takes away “expected profits” can convene a tribunal, and force a country to change its laws. Yes, technically a tribunal can only issue monetary sanctions against a country, but countries who wish to avoid such monetary payments will change their laws.

Remember how Eli Lilly is demanding $500 million from Canada after Canada rejected some Eli Lilly patents, noting that the new compound didn’t actually do anything new and useful? Eli Lilly claims that using such a standard to reject patents unfairly attacks its expected future profits, and thus it can demand $500 million from Canadian taxpayers. Now, imagine that on all sorts of other systems.

Cultural rights, human rights, corporate rights. It would seem that corporate rights are going to run counter to human rights, if nothing else.

Is it time to invest in a ‘brain chip’ company?

This story take a few twists and turns. First, ‘brain chips’ as they’re sometimes called would allow, theoretically, computers to learn and function like human brains. (Note: There’s another type of ‘brain chip’ which could be implanted in human brains to help deal with diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. *Today’s [June 26, 2015] earlier posting about an artificial neuron points at some of the work being done in this areas.*)

Returning to the ‘brain ship’ at hand. Second, there’s a company called BrainChip, which has one patent and another pending for, yes, a ‘brain chip’.

The company, BrainChip, founded in Australia and now headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley, recently sparked some investor interest in Australia. From an April 7, 2015 article by Timna Jacks for the Australian Financial Review,

Former mining stock Aziana Limited has whet Australian investors’ appetite for science fiction, with its share price jumping 125 per cent since it announced it was acquiring a US-based tech company called BrainChip, which promises artificial intelligence through a microchip that replicates the neural system of the human brain.

Shares in the company closed at 9¢ before the Easter long weekend, having been priced at just 4¢ when the backdoor listing of BrainChip was announced to the market on March 18.

Creator of the patented digital chip, Peter Van Der Made told The Australian Financial Review the technology has the capacity to learn autonomously, due to its composition of 10,000 biomimic neurons, which, through a process known as synaptic time-dependent plasticity, can form memories and associations in the same way as a biological brain. He said it works 5000 times faster and uses a thousandth of the power of the fastest computers available today.

Mr Van Der Made is inviting technology partners to license the technology for their own chips and products, and is donating the technology to university laboratories in the US for research.

The Netherlands-born Australian, now based in southern California, was inspired to create the brain-like chip in 2004, after working at the IBM Internet Security Systems for two years, where he was chief scientist for behaviour analysis security systems. …

A June 23, 2015 article by Tony Malkovic on phys.org provide a few more details about BrainChip and about the deal,

Mr Van der Made and the company, also called BrainChip, are now based in Silicon Valley in California and he returned to Perth last month as part of the company’s recent merger and listing on the Australian Stock Exchange.

He says BrainChip has the ability to learn autonomously, evolve and associate information and respond to stimuli like a brain.

Mr Van der Made says the company’s chip technology is more than 5,000 faster than other technologies, yet uses only 1/1,000th of the power.

“It’s a hardware only solution, there is no software to slow things down,” he says.

“It doesn’t executes instructions, it learns and supplies what it has learnt to new information.

“BrainChip is on the road to position itself at the forefront of artificial intelligence,” he says.

“We have a clear advantage, at least 10 years, over anybody else in the market, that includes IBM.”

BrainChip is aiming at the global semiconductor market involving almost anything that involves a microprocessor.

You can find out more about the company, BrainChip here. The site does have a little more information about the technology,

Spiking Neuron Adaptive Processor (SNAP)

BrainChip’s inventor, Peter van der Made, has created an exciting new Spiking Neural Networking technology that has the ability to learn autonomously, evolve and associate information just like the human brain. The technology is developed as a digital design containing a configurable “sea of biomimic neurons’.

The technology is fast, completely digital, and consumes very low power, making it feasible to integrate large networks into portable battery-operated products, something that has never been possible before.

BrainChip neurons autonomously learn through a process known as STDP (Synaptic Time Dependent Plasticity). BrainChip’s fully digital neurons process input spikes directly in hardware. Sensory neurons convert physical stimuli into spikes. Learning occurs when the input is intense, or repeating through feedback and this is directly correlated to the way the brain learns.

Computing Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs)

The brain consists of specialized nerve cells that communicate with one another. Each such nerve cell is called a Neuron,. The inputs are memory nodes called synapses. When the neuron associates information, it produces a ‘spike’ or a ‘spike train’. Each spike is a pulse that triggers a value in the next synapse. Synapses store values, similar to the way a computer stores numbers. In combination, these values determine the function of the neural network. Synapses acquire values through learning.

In Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) this complex function is generally simplified to a static summation and compare function, which severely limits computational power. BrainChip has redefined how neural networks work, replicating the behaviour of the brain. BrainChip’s artificial neurons are completely digital, biologically realistic resulting in increased computational power, high speed and extremely low power consumption.

The Problem with Artificial Neural Networks

Standard ANNs, running on computer hardware are processed sequentially; the processor runs a program that defines the neural network. This consumes considerable time and because these neurons are processed sequentially, all this delayed time adds up resulting in a significant linear decline in network performance with size.

BrainChip neurons are all mapped in parallel. Therefore the performance of the network is not dependent on the size of the network providing a clear speed advantage. So because there is no decline in performance with network size, learning also takes place in parallel within each synapse, making STDP learning very fast.

A hardware solution

BrainChip’s digital neural technology is the only custom hardware solution that is capable of STDP learning. The hardware requires no coding and has no software as it evolves learning through experience and user direction.

The BrainChip neuron is unique in that it is completely digital, behaves asynchronously like an analog neuron, and has a higher level of biological realism. It is more sophisticated than software neural models and is many orders of magnitude faster. The BrainChip neuron consists entirely of binary logic gates with no traditional CPU core. Hence, there are no ‘programming’ steps. Learning and training takes the place of programming and coding. Like of a child learning a task for the first time.

Software ‘neurons’, to compromise for limited processing power, are simplified to a point where they do not resemble any of the features of a biological neuron. This is due to the sequential nature of computers, whereby all data has to pass through a central processor in chunks of 16, 32 or 64 bits. In contrast, the brain’s network is parallel and processes the equivalent of millions of data bits simultaneously.

A significantly faster technology

Performing emulation in digital hardware has distinct advantages over software. As software is processed sequentially, one instruction at a time, Software Neural Networks perform slower with increasing size. Parallel hardware does not have this problem and maintains the same speed no matter how large the network is. Another advantage of hardware is that it is more power efficient by several orders of magnitude.

The speed of the BrainChip device is unparalleled in the industry.

For large neural networks a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is ~70 times faster than the Intel i7 executing a similar size neural network. The BrainChip neural network is faster still and takes far fewer CPU (Central Processing Unit) cycles, with just a little communication overhead, which means that the CPU is available for other tasks. The BrainChip network also responds much faster than a software network accelerating the performance of the entire system.

The BrainChip network is completely parallel, with no sequential dependencies. This means that the network does not slow down with increasing size.

Endorsed by the neuroscience community

A number of the world’s pre-eminent neuroscientists have endorsed the technology and are agreeing to joint develop projects.

BrainChip has the potential to become the de facto standard for all autonomous learning technology and computer products.

Patented

BrainChip’s autonomous learning technology patent was granted on the 21st September 2008 (Patent number US 8,250,011 “Autonomous learning dynamic artificial neural computing device and brain inspired system”). BrainChip is the only company in the world to have achieved autonomous learning in a network of Digital Neurons without any software.

A prototype Spiking Neuron Adaptive Processor was designed as a ‘proof of concept’ chip.

The first tests were completed at the end of 2007 and this design was used as the foundation for the US patent application which was filed in 2008. BrainChip has also applied for a continuation-in-part patent filed in 2012, the “Method and System for creating Dynamic Neural Function Libraries”, US Patent Application 13/461,800 which is pending.

Van der Made doesn’t seem to have published any papers on this work and the description of the technology provided on the website is frustratingly vague. There are many acronyms for processes but no mention of what this hardware might be. For example, is it based on a memristor or some kind of atomic ionic switch or something else altogether?

It would be interesting to find out more but, presumably, van der Made, wishes to withhold details. There are many companies following the same strategy while pursuing what they view as a business advantage.

* Artificial neuron link added June 26, 2015 at 1017 hours PST.

Bayer MaterialScience divests itself of carbon nanotube and graphene patents

Last year’s announcement from Bayer MaterialScience about withdrawing from the carbon nanotube market (featured in my May 9, 2013 posting) has now been followed with news of the company’s sale of its intellectual property (patents) associated with carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and graphene. From a March 31, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

After concluding its research work on carbon nanotubes (CNT) and graphenes, Bayer MaterialScience is divesting itself of fundamental intellectual property in this field. The company FutureCarbon GmbH, based in Bayreuth, Germany, will acquire, as leading provider of carbon-based composites, the bulk of the corresponding patents from the past ten years. The two parties have now signed an agreement to this effect. The financial details of the transfer will not be disclosed.

The March 31, 2014 Bayer news release, which originated the news item, describes the winning bidder,

FutureCarbon GmbH is a leading innovator and provider of novel, carbon-based composites. As a specialist in the manufacture and in particular the refinement of various carbon materials, FutureCarbon enables a broad range of strategic industries, to easily utilize the extraordinary properties of carbon materials in their products.

“We enjoy a long-standing development partnership with Bayer. We are happy that we were able to acquire the Bayer patents for further market realization of the technology. They expand our applications base substantially and open up new possibilities and business segments for us,” said Dr. Walter Schütz, managing director of the Bayreuth company.

After Bayer MaterialScience announced the conclusion of its CNT projects in May 2013, various companies indicated their interest in making concrete use of intellectual property developed before the decision was made for FutureCarbon as ideal partner for taking over the accomplished knowledge.

About FutureCarbon GmbH
FutureCarbon specializes in the development and manufacture of carbon nanomaterials and their refinement to create what are called carbon supercomposites, primary products for further industrial processing. Carbon supercomposites are combinations of materials that unfold the special characteristics of carbon nano-materials in the macroscopic world of real applications. All of our materials are manufactured on an industrial scale.

You can find out more about FutureCarbon here.

European Patent Office (EPO) explains how to patent nano

A Jan. 28, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes the European Patent Office’s brochure on patenting nanotechnology-derived applications (Note: A link has been removed),

The number of European applications filed for nanotechnology-related inventions has more than tripled since the mid-1990s.

The interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology poses a challenge for patent offices, legal representatives, inventors and applicants alike.

A new brochure (Nanotechnology and patents; pdf) from the European Patent Office (EPO) explains how to get started if you want to search for nanotechnology inventions in patent databases, and what to look out for if you are thinking about applying to the EPO for a nanotechnology patent yourself.

The EPO’s 16 pp. Nanotechnology and Patents brochure (PDF) can be found here.  The EPO website is here and they do have a webpage dedicated to nanotechnology,

Nanotechnology – entities with a controlled geometrical size of at least one functional component below 100 nanometres in one or more dimensions susceptible of making physical, chemical or biological effects – is considered by many to be one of the key technologies of this century, with an expected market volume of EUR 1 trillion in 2015.

Nanotechnology can occur in almost any area of science and engineering: it is just as relevant to biotechnologists and physicists as it is to electrical and mechanical engineers or materials scientists. The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that anyone interested in literature on nanotechnology, especially existing patent documents, struggles to retrieve it from the databases available.

To get to grips with this new technology, the EPO introduced the “Y01N” tags to label nanotechnology.

Y01N became B82Y

Recently all patent offices worldwide started to classify nanotechnology uniformly under the International Patent Classification (IPC) system. To make this possible, a new symbol, B82Y was introduced into the IPC on 1 January 2011, building on the Y01N system that the EPO had been using to tag nanotechnology-related patent applications.

The new B82Y symbol makes it easier to retrieve relevant patent documents in this important technical area as it is now part of both the IPC and the CPC (Cooperative Patent Classification) schemes. The EPO has moved all nanotechnology documents from the Y01N area in its databases to B82Y. The Y01N codes have been discontinued.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a publication date for the brochure. Hopefully this was produced relatively recently. One final comment, you can go here to download the PDF or order a print copy (English only) from the one of the EPO’s publication pages.

Aphios gets a patent to deliver cannabis (marijuana) at the nanoscale

A Nov. 4, 2013 news item on Nanowerk features Aphios Corporation and its successful application for a cannibis-themed patent,

Aphios Corporation today announced that it received notification of allowance for a United States Patent entitled “Nanoencapsulated Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol” for the oral delivery of cannabinoids such as Δ9-THC in biodegradable polymer nanoparticles.”

According to Dr. Trevor P. Castor, co-inventor of the technology, “The patented technology will be utilized in the manufacturing of APH-0812 for pain and cachexia in AIDS and cancer patients, and APH-1305 for Multiple Sclerosis and other CNS disorders. The nanotech formulation of Δ9-THC will also have applicability in several other chronic diseases such as obesity, smoking cessation and schizophrenia.”

There is, currently, a commercially available product (Marinol®) but there are some disadvantages that the Aphios technology bypasses (from the Nov. 4, 2013 news item on FreshNews.com),

For the novel patented formulation, pharmaceutical grade Δ9-THC and other cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa with a >99% purity are first manufactured following cGMP utilizing Aphios’ patented SFS-CXP manufacturing technology platform. Our scientists and engineers then utilize Aphios’ patented SFS-PNS polymer nanospheres technology platform to encapsulate Δ9-THC in a biodegradable polymer. Nanoencapsulation protects Δ9-THC transport to the stomach, enhances its passage across the stomach lining of the gut and protects it from first pass metabolism in the liver. Nanoencapsulation slows the release of Δ9-THC, controlling the amount of drug in the bloodstream and reducing the frequency of drug administration during the day. Alternatively, the nanoformulation will be utilized to deliver Δ9-THC and other cannabinoids from a subcutaneously implanted depot.

You can find out more about Aphios including this from the Company Overview webpage,

We are leading the way in developing green, enabling biotechnology and nanotechnology drug delivery platforms and enhanced therapeutic products for health maintenance, disease prevention and the treatment of certain cancers, infectious diseases and Central Nervous System (CNS) disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Aphios®, which means “virus-free” in Greek, was founded in 1993 as a Delaware C corporation. The company was founded by Dr. Trevor P. Castor, President and CEO, to develop enabling technology platforms around the delivery and viral safety of biologics such as human plasma and recombinant therapeutics, hence its “virus-free” name. At its founding, the Company elected to spend about 10% of its research activities on investigating natural therapeutics. This interest has evolved to the realization that in order to solve the problems of cancer and aging, we have to look to nature, marine organisms and terrestrial plants that have learned how to control cell growth and cancerous mutation, often living for hundreds to thousands of years.

There’s no question humans and other animals have benefited greatly from therapeutics derived from nature but there’s at least one case, artemisinin, where we might be better off if the therapy is delivered from its  more or less natural state, a tea brewed from the plant, rather than as a refined drug, artemisinin combination therapy (or ACT) purchased from Sanofi (aka, Sanofi-Aventis), a French, multi-national pharmaceutical company, as per the discussion in my April 12, 2013 posting.

Taiwan and its nanotechnology patents

In an Oct. 2, 2013 news item by Chung Jung-feng and Y.L. Kao for the Focus Taiwan [online] News Channel, an unnamed industry expert claimed Taiwan is ranked fourth-top in the world in terms of the number and share of granted nanotechnology patents in 2012,

With the opening of the 2013 Taiwan Nano Week and Exhibition at the Taipei World Trade Center Wednesday, an industry expert said Taiwan is ranked fourth-top in the world in terms of the number and share of granted nanotechnology patents in 2012.

Wu Chung-yu, head of the National Program on Nanotechnology (NPNT), said that nanotechnology is expected to be a main driver for the technology industry.

Wu said that currently, the European Union, the United States, Germany, Japan and South Korea are mapping out plans for the development of nanotechnology by 2020.

According to the news item, Taiwan’s NPNT currently holds 1500 patents. The government has invested almost NT$14.5B since 2009 in 860 nanotechnology transfer projects in the NPNT’s second phase (1st phase was 2003-2008).

I was not able to find any statistics that directly supported the contention that Taiwan is the fourth largest holder of patents worldwide but there was an intriguing paper, Nanotechnology Patent Survey: Who Will Be the Leaders in the Fifth Technology Revolution? by Carey C. Jordan, Iona N. Kaiser, and Valerie C. Moore,, which puts Taiwan in 5th place for patents (tied with Canada and Great Britain at 3%) in a 2011 list featuring countries only (p. 3 PDF, p. 124 print)). Also in 2011, a Taiwanese company, Hon Hai Precision Industry (computers and electronics), placed 3rd in a list of 25 top assignees in nanotechnology patent literature (p. 4 PDF; p. 125 print).

Patent for detecting, imaging, and measuring cancer cells with nanoparticles awarded

The patent awarded to Senior Scientific seems to offer a generous scope, from the May 23, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Senior Scientific, LLC, a unit of Manhattan Scientifics and a developer of molecular imaging and nanobiotechnology for the early detection and localization of cancer and other human diseases, today announced that the United States Patent Office (USPTO) has issued U.S. Patent No. 8,447,379 entitled “Detection, measurement, and imaging of cells such as cancer and other biologic substances using targeted nanoparticles and magnetic properties thereof.”

The patent includes claims directed to detecting and measuring biological substances such as cancer cells. The methods can be used in humans, with no harmful radiation, and can find cancers much earlier than is possible with conventional technologies.

I find this comment rather interesting, from the news item,

Dr. Flynn [Edward R. Flynn], Chief Scientist of Senior Scientific, said, “I am encouraged to see my work [based on NanoMagnetic RelaxometryTM] heading to market, and pleased that we now also have this patent to protect the business.” [emphasis mine]

I did search the USPTO website for U.S. Patent No. 8,447,379 to find this,

Detection, measurement, and imaging of cells such as cancer and other biologic substances using targeted nanoparticles and magnetic properties thereof


Abstract
The present invention can provide a method of determining the presence, location, quantity, or a combination thereof, of a biological substance, comprising: (a) exposing a sample to a plurality of targeted nanoparticles, where each targeted nanoparticle comprises a paramagnetic nanoparticle conjugated with one or more targeting agents that preferentially bind with the biological substance, under conditions that facilitate binding of the targeting agent to at least one of the one or more biological substances; (b) subjecting the sample to a magnetic field of sufficient strength to induce magnetization of the nanoparticles; (c) measuring a magnetic field of the sample after decreasing the magnetic field applied in step b below a threshold; (d) determining the presence, location, quantity, or a combination thereof, of the one or more biologic substances from the magnetic field measured in step (c).

Unfortunately, this does not clarify the situation for me. It looks as if they have granted a patent for a specific method or technique but given the nature of the ‘patent wars’ I imagine this language allows a fair degree of interpretation by the company that owns the patent. In any event, you can find out more about Manhattan Scientifics (Senior Scientific’s parent company) here.

Patent bonanza in nanotechnology (sigh)

This is more of a snippet than anything else but since it touches on patents and nanotechnology, I’ve decided to post this excerpt (from J. Steven Rutt’s Jan. 2, 2013 posting on JD Supra Law News),

The nanotechnology patent filing boom continues. In 2012, the USPTO [US Patent and Trademark Office] published 4,098 nanotechnology class 977 applications, which represents a 19.2% increase over last year. By way of comparison, in 2008, the USPTO published only 827 nanotechnology applications, and in 2009, only 1,499. Hence, the number has almost tripled in three years.

Rutt is a lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP and he’s much happier about this news than I am. Of course, a lawyer is much likely to profit from this trend than anyone else (except maybe for a patent troll). My Nov. 23, 2012 posting (Free the nano—stop patenting publicly funded research) highlights some alternative perspectives.

The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report—examined (part 2: the rest of the report)

The critiques I offered in relation to the report’s  executive summary (written in early Oct. 2012 but not published ’til now) and other materials can remain more or less intact now that I’ve read the rest of the report (State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 [link to full PDF report]). Overall, I think it’s a useful and good report despite what I consider to be some significant shortcomings, not least of which is the uncritical acceptance of the view Canada doesn’t patent enough of its science and its copyright laws are insufficient.

My concern regarding the technometrics (counting patents) is definitely not echoed in the report,

One key weakness of these measures is that not all types of technology development lead to patentable technologies. Some, such as software development, are typically subject to copyright instead. This is particularly relevant for research fields where software development may be a key aspect of developing new technologies such as computer sciences or digital media. Even when patenting is applicable as a means of commercializing and protecting intellectual property (IP), not all inventions are patented. (p. 18 print, p. 42 PDF)

In my view this is a little bit like fussing over the electrical wiring when the foundations of your house are  in such bad repair that the whole structure is in imminent danger of falling. As noted in my critique of the executive summary, the patent system in the US and elsewhere is in deep, deep trouble and, is in fact, hindering innovation. Here’s an interesting comment about patent issues being covered in the media (from a Dec. 27, 2012 posting by Mike Masnick for Techdirt),

There’s been a recent uptick in stories about patent trolling getting mainstream media attention, and the latest example is a recent segment on CBS’s national morning program, CBS This Morning, which explored how patent trolls are hurting the US economy …

… After the segment, done by Jeff Glor, one of the anchors specifically says to him [Austin Meyer of the Laminer company which is fighting a patent troll in court and getting coverage on the morning news]: “So it sounds like this is really stifling innovation and it hurts small businesses!”

Getting back to the report, I’m in more sympathy with the panel’s use of  bibliometrics,

As a mode of research assessment, bibliometric analysis has several important advantages. First, these techniques are built on a well-developed foundation of quantitative data. Publication in peer-reviewed journals is a cornerstone of research dissemination in most scientific and academic disciplines, and bibliometric data are therefore one of the few readily available sources of quantitative information on research activity that allow for comparisons across many fields of research. Second, bibliometric analyses are able to provide information about both research productivity (i.e., the quantity of journal articles produced) and research impact (measured through citations). While there are important methodological issues associated with these metrics (e.g., database coverage by discipline, correct procedures for normalization and aggregation, self-citations, and negative citations, etc.), [emphasis mine] most bibliometric experts agree that, when used appropriately, citation based indicators can be valid measures of the degree to which research has had an impact on later scientific work … (p. 15 print, p. 39, PDF)

Still, I do think that a positive publication bias (i.e., the tendency to publish positive results over negative or inclusive results) in the field medical research should have been mentioned as it is a major area of concern in the use  of bibliometrics and especially since one of the identified areas of  Canadian excellence is  in the field of medical research.

The report’s critique of the opinion surveys has to be the least sophisticated in the entire report,

There are limitations related to the use of opinion surveys generally. The most important of these is simply that their results are, in the end, based entirely on the opinions of those surveyed. (p. 20 print, p. 44 PDF)

Let’s see if I’ve got this right. Counting the number of citations a paper, which was peer-reviewed (i.e., a set of experts were asked for their opinions about the paper prior to publication) and which may have been published due to a positive publication, bias yields data (bibliometrics) which are by definition more reliable than an opinion. In short, the Holy Grail (a sacred object in Christian traditions) is data even though that data or ‘evidence’  is provably based on and biased by opinion which the report writers identify as a limitation. Talk about a conundrum.

Sadly the humanities, arts, and social sciences (but especially humanities and arts) posed quite the problem regarding evidence-based analysis,

While the Panel believes that most other evidence-gathering activities undertaken for this assessment are equally valid across all fields, the limitations of bibliometrics led the Panel to seek measures of the impact of HASS [Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences] research that would be equivalent to the use of bibliometrics, and would measure knowledge dissemination by books, book chapters, international awards, exhibitions, and other arts productions (e.g., theatre, cinema, etc.). Despite considerable efforts to collect information, however, the Panel found the data to be sparse and methods to collect it unreliable, such that it was not possible to draw conclusions from the resulting data. In short, the available data for HASS-specific outputs did not match the quality and rigour of the other evidence collected for this report. As a result, this evidence was not used in the Panel’s deliberations.

Interestingly, the expert panel was led by Dr. Eliot Phillipson, Sir John and Lady Eaton Professor of Medicine Emeritus, [emphasis mine] University of Toronto, who received his MD in 1963. Evidence-based medicine is the ne plus ultra of medical publishing these days. Is this deep distress over a lack of evidence/data in other fields a reflection of the chair’s biases?  In all the discussion and critique of the methodologies, there was no discussion about reflexivity, i. e., the researcher’s or, in this case, the individual panel members’ (individually or collectively) biases and their possible impact on the report. Even with so called evidence-based medicine, bias and opinion are issues.

While the panel was not tasked to look into business-led R&D efforts (there is a forthcoming assessment focused on that question) mention was made in Chapter 3 (Research Investment) of the report. I was particularly pleased to see mention of the now defunct Nortel with its important century long contribution to Canadian R&D efforts. [Full disclosure: I did contract work for Nortel on and off for two years.]

A closer look at recent R&D expenditure trends shows that Canada’s total investment in R&D has declined in real terms between 2006 and 2010, driven mainly by declining private-sector research performance. Both government and higher education R&D expenditures increased modestly over the same five-year period (growing by 4.5 per cent and 7.1 per cent respectively), while business R&D declined by 17 per cent (see Figure 3.3). Much of this decline can be attributed to the failing fortunes and bankruptcy of Nortel Networks Corporation, which was one of Canada’s top corporate R&D spenders for many years. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, global R&D expenditure at Nortel dropped by 48 per cent, from nearly $1.7 billion to approximately $865 million (Re$earch Infosource, 2010) with significant impact on Canada. Although growth in R&D expenditure at other Canadian companies, particularly Research In Motion, partially compensated for the decline at Nortel, the overall downward trend remains. (p. 30 print, p. 54 PDF)

Chapter 4 of the report (Research Productivity and Impact) is filled with colourful tables and various diagrams and charts illustrating areas of strength and weakness within the Canadian research endeavour, my concerns over the metrics notwithstanding. I was a bit startled by our strength in Philosophy and Theology (Table 4.2 on p. 41 print, p. 65 PDF) as it was not touted in the initial publicity about the report. Of course, they can’t mention everything so there are some other pleasant surprises in here. Going in the other direction, I’m a little disturbed by the drop (down from 1.32 in 1999-2004 to 1.12 in 2005-1010) in the ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) specialization index but that is, as the report notes, a consequence of the Nortel loss and ICT scores better in other measures.

I very much appreciated the inclusion of the questions used in the surveys and the order in which they were asked, a practice which seems to be disappearing elsewhere. The discussion about possible biases and how the data was weighted to account for biases is interesting,

Because the responding population was significantly different than the sample population (p<0.01) for some countries, the data were weighted to correct for over- or under-representation. For example, Canadians accounted for 4.4 per cent of top-cited researchers, but 7.0 per cent of those that responded. After weighting, Canadians account for 4.4 per cent in the analyses that follow. This weighting changed overall results of how many people ranked each country in the top five by less than one per cent.

Even with weighting to remove bias in choice to respond, there could be a perception that self-selection is responsible for some results. Top-cited Canadian researchers in the population sample were not excluded from the survey but the results for Canada cannot be explained by self-promotion since 37 per cent of all respondents identified Canada among the top five countries in their field, but only 7 per cent (4.4 per cent after weighting) of respondents were from Canada. Similarly, 94 per cent of respondents identified the United States as a top country in their field, yet only 33 per cent (41 per cent after weighting) were from the United States. Furthermore, only 9 per cent of respondents had either worked or studied in Canada, and 28 per cent had no personal experience of, or association with, Canada or Canadian researchers (see Table 5.2). It is reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of respondents based their evaluation of Canadian S&T on its scientific contributions and reputation alone. (p. 65 print, p. 89 PDF)

There is another possible bias  not mentioned in the report and that has to do with answering the question: What do you think my strengths and weaknesses are? If somebody asks you that question and you are replying directly, you are likely to focus on their strong points and be as gentle as possible about their weaknesses. Perhaps the panel should consider having another country ask those questions about Canadian research. We might find the conversation becomes a little more forthright and critical.

Chapter 6 of the report discusses research collaboration which is acknowledged as poorly served by bibliometrics. Of course, collaboration is a strategy which Canadians have succeeded with not least because we simply don’t have the resources to go it alone.

One of the features I quite enjoyed in this report are the spotlight features. For example, there’s the one on stem cell research,

Spotlight on Canadian Stem Cell Research

Stem cells were discovered by two Canadian researchers, Dr. James Till and the late Dr. Ernest McCulloch, at the University of Toronto over 50 years ago. This great Canadian contribution to medicine laid the foundation for all stem cell research, and put Canada firmly at the forefront of this field, an international leadership position that is still maintained.

Stem cell research, which is increasingly important to the future of cell replacement therapy for diseased or damaged tissues, spans many disciplines. These disciplines include biology, genetics, bioengineering, social sciences, ethics and law, chemical biology, and bioinformatics. The research aims to understand the mechanisms that govern stem cell behaviour, particularly as it relates to disease development and ultimately treatments or cures.

Stem cell researchers in Canada have a strong history of collaboration that has been supported and strengthened since 2001 by the Stem Cell Network (SCN) (one of the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence), a network considered to be a world leader in the field. Grants awarded through the SCN alone have affected the work of more than 125 principal investigators working in 30 institutions from Halifax to Vancouver. Particularly noteworthy institutions include the Terry Fox Laboratory at the BC Cancer Agency; the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary; Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, Mount Sinai Hospital, University Health Network, and the University of Toronto; the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research in Ottawa; and the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer in Montréal. In 2010, a new Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine was formed to further support stem cell initiatives of interest to industry partners.

Today, Canadian researchers are among the most influential in the stem cell and regenerative medicine field. SCN investigators have published nearly 1,000 papers since 2001 in areas such as cancer stem cells; the endogenous repair of heart, muscle, and neural systems; the expansion of blood stem cells for the treatment of a variety of blood-borne diseases; the development of biomaterials for the delivery and support of cellular structures to replace damaged tissues; the direct conversion of skin stem cells to blood; the evolutionary analysis of leukemia stem cells; the identification of pancreatic stem cells; and the isolation of multipotent blood stem cells capable of forming all cells in the human blood system. (p. 96 print, p. 120 PDF)

Getting back to the report and my concerns, Chapter 8 on S&T capacity focuses on science training and education,

• From 2005 to 2009, there were increases in the number of students graduating from Canadian universities at the college, undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels, with the largest increase at the doctoral level.

• Canada ranks first in the world for its share of population with post-secondary education.

• International students comprise 11 per cent of doctoral students graduating from Canadian universities. The fields with the largest proportions of international students include Earth and Environmental Sciences; Mathematics and Statistics; Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry; and Physics and Astronomy.

• From 1997 to 2010, Canada experienced a positive migration flow of researchers, particularly in the fields of Clinical Medicine, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Engineering, and Chemistry. Based on Average Relative Citations, the quality of researchers emigrating and immigrating was comparable.

• In three-quarters of fields, the majority of top-cited researchers surveyed thought Canada has world-leading research infrastructure or programs. (p. 118 print, p. 142 PDF)

Getting back to more critical matters, I don’t see a reference to jobs in this report. It’s all very well to graduate a large number of science PhDs, which we do,  but what’s the point if they can’t find work?

  • From 2005 to 2009, there were increases in the number of students graduating from Canadian universities at the college, undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels, with the largest increase at the doctoral level.
  • Canada ranks first in the world for its share of population with post-secondary education.
  • International students comprise 11 per cent of doctoral students graduating from Canadian universities. The fields with the largest proportions of international students include Earth and Environmental Sciences; Mathematics and Statistics; Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry; and Physics and Astronomy.
  • From 1997 to 2010, Canada experienced a positive migration flow of researchers, particularly in the fields of Clinical Medicine, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Engineering, and Chemistry. Based on Average Relative Citations, the quality of researchers emigrating and immigrating was comparable.
  • In three-quarters of fields, the majority of top-cited researchers surveyed thought Canada has world-leading research infrastructure or programs. (p. 118 print, p. 142 PDF)

The Black Whole blog on the University Affairs website has discussed and continues to discuss the dearth of jobs in Canada for science graduates.

Chapter 9 of the report breaks down the information on a regional (provincial) bases. As you might expect, the research powerhouses are Ontario, Québec, Alberta and BC. Chapter 10 summarizes the material on a field basis, i.e., Biology; Chemistry; Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry; Econ0mics; Social Sciences; etc.  and those results were widely discussed at the time and are mentioned in part 1 of this commentary.

One of the most striking results in the report is Chapter 11: Conclusions,

The geographic distribution of the six fields of strength is difficult to determine with precision because of the diminished reliability of data below the national level, and the vastly different size of the research enterprise in each province.

The most reliable data that are independent of size are provincial ARC scores. Using this metric, the leading provinces in each field are as follows:

  • Clinical Medicine: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta
  • Historical Studies: New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia
  • ICT: British Columbia, Ontario
  •  Physics and Astronomy: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec
  • Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario
  • Visual and Performing Arts: Quebec [emphasis mine] (p. 193 print, p. 217 PDF)

Canada has an international reputation in visual and performing *arts* which is driven by one province alone.

As for our national fading reputation in natural resources and environmental S&T that seems predictable by almost any informed observer given funding decisions over the last several years.

The report does identify some emerging strengths,

Although robust methods of identifying emerging areas of S&T are still in their infancy, the Panel used new bibliometric techniques to identify research clusters and their rates of growth. Rapidly emerging research clusters in Canada have keywords relating, most notably, to:

• wireless technologies and networking,

• information processing and computation,

• nanotechnologies and carbon nanotubes, and

• digital media technologies.

The Survey of Canadian S&T Experts pointed to personalized medicine and health care, several energy technologies, tissue engineering, and digital media as areas in which Canada is well placed to become a global leader in development and application. (p. 195 print; p. 219 PDF)

I wish I was better and faster at crunching numbers because I’d like to spend time examining the data more closely but the reality is that all data is imperfect so this report like any snapshot is an approximation. Still, I would have liked to have seen some mention of changing practices in science. For example, there’s the protein-folding game, Foldit, which has attracted over 50,000 players (citizen scientists) who have answered questions and posed possibilities that had not occurred to scientists. Whether this trend will continue to disappear is to be answered in the future. What I find disconcerting is how thoroughly this and other shifting practices (scientists publishing research in blogs) and thorny issues such as the highly problematic patent system were ignored. Individual panel members or the report writers themselves may have wanted to include some mention but we’ll never know because the report is presented as a singular, united authority.

In any event, Bravo! to the expert panel and their support team as this can’t have been an easy job.

If you have anything to say about this commentary or the report please do comment, I would love to hear more opinions.

*’arts’ added Jan. 19, 2016.