Whether you are a researcher, an entrepreneur or a corporate innovation leader, it would be crucial to find out what kind of technological solutions exist already to get R&D (Research and Development) insights, adapt an existing solution for your use, challenge the validity of a patent, or gather evidence of patentability. Sometimes, much time and money may be spent trying to invent or innovate on something only to realize too late that the same had been done by somebody already.
So, how do you find out what kind of technological solutions already exist? Today, in the age of the Internet, it is not difficult. You just need to know where to search and how to search. I got to learn about this in my Ph.D course and later at a training course I attended at the Swedish Patent Office in Stockholm in 2018. Broadly, you can search for technological inventions and innovations in two categories of search databases: patent databases, and non-patent literature databases. This article is meant to show you the basics so that you can use it as a starting point to learn more on this subject.
What is a patent? It is a kind of Intellectual Property (IP) right granted for an invention which can be a product or a process. Sometimes, people loosely call all kinds of IP protections as patent, but in reality, patent is just one of the IP protections, and it is the most difficult one to obtain. Other IP protections include copyright, trademark, industrial design, utility model, traditional knowledge, geographical indications, genetic resources, etc. So far, only one Bhutanese individual has been granted a patent by the Intellectual Property Department under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. To be granted a patent takes a long time because patent examiners have to make sure that the invention is really new.
Patent databases contain detailed information about patents in searchable format. There are many free patent databases online. However, you should have some idea about patent searching. You can get help on how to do this from the Intellectual Property Department under the Ministry of Economic Affairs or from one of the Technology and Innovation Support Centers (TISCs) recognized by the IPD. Alternatively, you can search online for patent search guides and follow them.
Free Patent databases
Patentscope by WIPO (patentscope.wipo.int)
WIPO is one of the 15 agencies of the United Nations. It has 192 member states. Patentscope by WIPO provides free access to 83+ million patent documents from multiple participating patent offices, and it can be used in 9 different languages.
Google Patents (patents.google.com)
Google patents was launched on 14 December 2006 as an experiment, but it soon gained popularity. Like the Google search engine, it has a simple user interface. It even has a feature to include non-patent literature from Google scholar.
Espacenet is managed by the European Patent Office (EPO) and provides access to over 130 million patent documents from 97 countries. The website even allows you to search with multiple language combinations using its machine translation system.
USPTO is a federal agency of the US Government which is responsible for grants of U.S. patents and registration of trademarks.The website not only shows published and applied patents, but it also gives information on what patents are, if your idea is eligible for a patent, patent application process, patent maintenance, etc.
Other free patent databases
PQAI is an open-source platform, created to improve the patent process by enabling better prior art search and analysis. Lens.org is an initiative of Cambia and Queensland University of Technology.
Paid Patent Databases
The abovementioned free databases are great, and may serve most of your purposes. But for professional searches, people use one of these paid patent search services: Derwent World Patents Index, PatBase, Patseer, Drug Patent Watch, Patsnap, Patent Inspiration, and WIPO’s INSPIRE.
Non-patent literature (NPL) refers to all published documents other than patents or patent applications. This encompasses scientific publications such as journals, books, or conference proceedings, news reports etc. Patent examiners use NPL to check if a patent application is really new (inventive step).
NPL Academic Search Engines
Google Scholar (scholar.google.com)
Google Scholar is a very popular academic search engine for searching for academic journal papers and conference proceedings. Its simplicity and speed makes it very useful for doing a quick search on any topic of interest. It boasts coverage of over 300 million articles spread across various academic disciplines.
Microsoft Academic (academic.microsoft.com)
This is Microsoft’s response to Google Scholar and is not far behind in terms of ease of use and coverage since its relaunch in 2017.
PubMed (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) is very popular for free research on biomedical and healthcare literature.
SemanticScholar covers over 180 million articles and partners with the likes of IEEE, Microsoft Academic, and Springer Nature. Semantic Scholar applies AI to extract the meaning from the scientific literature.
Two Simple Examples of Technology Search
Let us say you want to come up with an electric fence to ward off monkeys because there has been news reports that the electric fence currently used in Bhutan are not very effective against the monkeys. You can easily do a search on Google Patents using the key words “electric fence for monkeys” and look at the results you get.
There are many patent documents related to the topic. Some look very interesting and may be worth exploring further. Few of the top results are: “Electric fence effective for monkeys, eagle and hakubishin”, “High impulse voltage generator for electric fence of electricity-saving type capable of certainly electrocuting monkey and wild boar”, and “Electrified fence for monkey invasion prevention”. Likewise, you can conduct searches on other patent databases to see if you get any interesting and unique results. The great thing about patents is that the patent holder is required to disclose complete information about the technology with detailed drawings and explanation in return for the protection of his patent rights.
Similarly, a search using the key words “Solar-powered vegetable dryer” returns many interesting results. If you are an innovator interested in coming up with a solar powered dryer for our farmers, the first step is to search these databases and look at what others have done. This will definitely refine your own invention or innovation.