EPFL research influences innovation on a global scale
How much impact does research carried out at individual universities have on innovation globally? To find out, a team of scientists from several schools developed a ranking system based on citations in patent literature. And on that score, EPFL sits in seventh place, just behind Stanford and above the California Institute of Technology.
Many people may wonder what the point is of all the research that goes on in publicly-funded schools. That’s because only a small percentage delivers what they see as tangible results, such as creating a spin-off that quickly patents and markets new technology. In fact, much of the research at universities serves as a stepping stone towards other discoveries – which in turn give rise to applications directly beneficial to our everyday lives. To determine the influence of such research on innovation, a team of scientists from several schools has developed a new metric that ranks universities according to the number of articles by their researchers that are cited in patent literature. Their results – recently published in Nature Biotechnology – put EPFL in seventh place.
Patents sit at the interface between laboratory research and market launch. That makes them the perfect starting point for uncovering the network that links inventions to commercial applications. To obtain a patent, researchers must prove that their technology is new and useful, and must place it in the context of the existing state of the art – which includes prior research done by others. The authors of the article in Nature Biotechnology therefore decided to use patent literature as an innovation gauge and developed a metric, called In4M, for ranking universities based on their ability to generate discoveries useful to further innovation. Their metric is based on the number of times articles from each university are cited in the 7.6 million patents filed with the 30 largest organizations over the past 35 years. “It’s currently the best patent database out there,” says Gaétan de Rassenfosse, Professor of Innovation and IP Policy at EPFL. The authors divided the patents into ten categories of research disciplines and 35 technology fields of use, drawing on the International Patent Classification (IPC) codes.
Mapping innovation linkages
In4M – short for international innovation and industry influence mapping – is designed to measure and subsequently rank universities according to the potential uses of their inventions. It reflects a university’s overall influence on industry and enterprise relative to other schools. The authors of the article also used the In4M metric to rank universities under a second method, whereby patents are grouped by research discipline. And the differences in rankings between the two methods were startling. EPFL fell from 7th place under the first method to 41st under the second; Carnegie Mellon slid from 4th to 71st; and the Georgia Institute of Technology dropped from 5th to 64th. These stark differences are probably due to the fact that some types of research are more likely to give rise to a patent than others. The authors believe that the technology fields of use method is more representative because it ties university research directly to businesses and specific industry applications. “This ranking illustrates the high visibility of the research done at EPFL,” says Andrea Crottini, a Technology Transfer Manager at EPFL. “Businesses – through intellectual property, from the person filing a patent to the one reviewing it – draw on the work we do when they want to know whether an invention can be patented.”
The system the authors developed can also identify what research and which researchers have had the most influence in specific areas. However, they applied their approach to only a limited data set. Their system is a free and open platform that can evolve to accommodate new data – upgrades are already in the works. It can also be used to determine the influence that a given university has had in each of the 35 technology fields of use relative to its peers. But one goal of their work to establish links between the science being carried out at universities and the resulting applications is to create an “Innovation Cartography,” or a mapping of the individuals and institutions that could be actors in a given field. That would serve to both facilitate networking and speed innovation.
In4M – like other global university rankings such as Shanghai, QS, Leiden, and Times Higher Education that evaluate schools and their research disciplines along criteria including reputation, teaching, and distinctions – provides an alternative for measuring the transition from research to innovation. And its inventors hope that it will become a benchmark. “It’s possible that our ranking won’t change much over time, since it’s based on data over the past 35 years,” says de Rassenfosse. “We’ll probably have to wait a while before changes in the number of citations have a significant effect on schools’ positions, unless we are able to leverage rapid advancements in methods for expanding databases and extracting information from them.”