Australian medical patents granted in the United States in 1984-1999

Eugen Mattes and Michael C Stacey
Med J Aust 2001; 174 (2): 83-87.
Published online: 15 January 2001

The Research Enterprise

Australian medical patents granted in the United States in 1984-1999

Eugen Mattes and Michael C Stacey

MJA 2001; 174: 83-87

Abstract - Methods - Results - Discussion - Acknowledgements - References - Authors' details

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Objective: To describe all medical patents granted in the United States to Australian-resident inventors between 1984 and 1999.
Data sources: All patent data originated from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Data for 1984-1994 were compiled by CHI Research Inc, and data for 1995-1999 were obtained from the Community of Science website.
Main outcome measures: Number of medical patents granted in the US to Australian-resident inventors; assignees (owners) of these medical patents; proportion of these medical patents related to biotechnology.
Results: From 1984 to 1999, 7835 utility patents were granted in the US to Australian-resident inventors. Of these, 1308 patents (17%) were identified as medical patents; 489 (37%) of these were biotechnology patents. Medical patents account for an increasing proportion of all US patents granted to Australian inventors, increasing from 10% in 1984 to 25% in 1999. Biotechnology accounted for an increasing proportion of medical patents, rising from 10% to 55% between 1984 and 1999. More than half the medical patents are owned by commercial interests, and 33% by only 14 organisations, six of which are universities and their affiliated institutions.
Conclusion: Only a few organisations account for most of the patenting of medical technology. The inventors and their organisations listed on medical patents could be canvassed when developing government policy and targeted for support in commercialising their medical technology.

Interest in harnessing the economic value of medical technology conceived and created in Australia has been growing.1-3 This is reflected in the creation of Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs). Since 1991, 67 CRCs have been created, of which 10 have a medical focus.4 Despite these initiatives, medical inventors, unlike sports stars, are virtually unrecognised by the Australian public and scientific community. Where do our new technologies in medicine come from -- industry, universities, or the lone inventor?

We chose to study all patents for inventions (utility patents) granted in the United States to Australian residents. These patents are economically more significant than patents granted in Australia, as the increased cost and effort of patenting in another country is thought to filter out trivial inventions.5 Because of the importance of the US market, the US is also the first country where multinational corporations submit their patent applications outside the patent's country of origin.6 Thus, Australian patents in the US are arguably the most important subset of Australian patents in other countries.7 Our aim was to describe Australian medical patents and to compare them with non-medical patents.


This is a descriptive study of patents granted in the US from 1984 to 1999 to inventors resident in Australia. Utility patents were examined, with design and plant patents excluded.

Sources of data

All patent data originated from the US Patent and Trademark Office. US patents listing one or more Australian-resident inventors for 1984-1994 were compiled by Computer Horizons Incorporated (CHI) Research Inc8 of the US and, for 1995-1999, were updated from the Community of Science website.9 Our electronic patent database contained the following information for each patent:

  • year of patent being granted;

  • US patent registration number;

  • title of patent;

  • all listed inventors and assignees and their country of residence; and

  • number of citations of scientific literature.

When required for classifying patents, the patent abstracts or full patents were examined on the Internet (using the US patent registration number) at either the US Patent and Trademark Office Web Patent Database Centre,10 or the Delphion (formerly IBM) Intellectual Property Network.11

Categorisation of medical patents

As there are no published guidelines for selecting medical patents, we defined a medical patent as any technology used for:
  • managing patients and their illnesses, such as drugs, diagnostic tests, surgical instruments, and rehabilitation devices (dental technologies were excluded);

  • preventing illness, such as sunscreen lotion; or

  • medical research, such as laboratory instruments. Generic technologies used in other fields, such as information technology, were excluded.

Patents were classified as medical, possibly medical or non-medical after reading the title and the name of the assignees (owners). For all patents labelled as possibly medical, we read the abstract, and if necessary the complete patent, to properly classify the patent.

Medical patents related to biotechnology12 were identified separately, and included devices, processes, DNA sequences, transgenic animals and manufacturing processes in the medical industry. Biotechnology patents related to other industries, such as agriculture, mining and food processing, were excluded.

Describing inventors and assignees

The inventors and assignees on patents were sorted alphabetically in Microsoft Excel,13 and any errors or differences in spelling were corrected. The median number of inventors and assignees per patent was calculated as a measure of collaboration.

The assignees on each patent were categorised as a business, university, government, research institute, CRC, non-government organisation, technology transfer office, or individual. Categorising was usually straightforward using the name of the assignee, but, if there was uncertainty, a search was made on the Internet using the search engine Dogpile.14

Data analysis

The data were stored, tabulated and graphed in Microsoft Excel,13 and statistical analysis was conducted using SPSS for Windows.15 The χ2 test or Fisher's exact test was used to compare independent proportions. The Mann-Whitney U test was used to compare medians.

Ethical issues

All the information in this study, including the names of inventors and companies, is publicly available on numerous patent bibliographic databases.


From 1984 to 1999, 7835 utility patents were granted in the US to Australian-resident inventors. From examination of the title and assignee names of these patents, 9% (673/7835) were classified as medical and 35% (2767/7835) as possibly medical. The abstracts of all patents classified as possibly medical were examined, and 11% (869/7835) required the full patent to be read. In total, 1308 (17%) Australian patents in the US were classified as medical. Of these, 489 (37%) were biotechnology patents.

Trends in medical patenting

The annual number of patents granted in the US to Australian-resident inventors in 1984-1999 more than doubled, rising from 310 to 800 (Box 1). During this 16-year period, the proportion of medical patents rose from 10% (30/310) to 25% (202/800). Biotechnology accounted for an increasing proportion of medical patents, rising from 10% (3/30) to 55% (112/202) over the same period.

Comparison of medical and non-medical patents

In terms of inventors, medical patents were:

  • more likely to have multiple inventors listed, with a median of two inventors per medical patent versus one per non-medical patent (P < 0.001, Box 2); and

  • twice as likely to be part of an international collaboration, with co-inventors who are residents of other countries in 21% (275/1308) of medical and 10% (649/6527) of non-medical patents (P < 0.001, Box 3).

Most US patents listing Australian inventors have either an Australian inventor or assignee owning the patent (68% for medical and 81% for non-medical patents) (Box 3). The technology most likely to arise from another country is that owned by an assignee in another country and listing an inventor from another country. Thus, 15% of medical and 7% of non-medical patents in our study may have originated outside Australia (Box 3).

Patents are either assigned, usually to an organisation, or unassigned (thus owned by the inventor). We found 82% of medical patents were assigned, compared with 69% of non-medical patents (P < 0.001, Box 2). For assigned patents, both medical and non-medical patents usually have one assignee (Box 2). For these assigned patents, there were three large differences, with medical patents being (Box 4):

  • less likely to be owned by a business;

  • four times more likely to be owned by a university; and

  • 40 times more likely to be owned by a research institute.

Both medical and non-medical patents are increasingly owned by business and universities, with fewer being unassigned. From 1984 to 1999, patents assigned to business increased from 49% to 63%; patents assigned to universities increased from 2% to 7%; and unassigned patents decreased from 36% to 20% of all patents.

Medical patents were three times as likely as non-medical patents to quote from published scientific articles. Sixty per cent (785/1308) of medical patents cited one or more scientific publications, compared with only 23% (1475/6527) of non-medical patents (P < 0.001).

Characteristics of medical patents

Most of the 1785 medical inventors are not prolific, with 67% (1200/1785) listed only once in 1984-1999. About 18% (318/1785) of medical inventors are listed on three or more medical patents. However, the 17 most prolific medical inventors (Box 5) were responsible for 13% (169/1308) of Australian medical patents. Eleven of these prolific inventors are clustered around four different technologies: electromedical devices (cardiac pacemakers and cochlear ear implants), biosensors, ribozymes, and the relaxin gene.

Just 14 organisations own 33% (438/1308) of medical patents; six of these organisations are Australian universities and their affiliated institutions (Box 6). Surprisingly, 20% (264/1308) of medical patents were owned by just five organisations: the University of Melbourne, Telectronics, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Biotech Australia, and the University of New South Wales.

The three most common types of medical technologies are cardiac pacemakers (7%), syringes or parenteral drug delivery technology (4%), and cochlear ear implants (3%).



Principal findings

We believe that this is the first published report that has examined Australian medical patents in detail. Australia, like all countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has shown a strong rise in the number of US patents granted per capita since the 1960s.5,16 However, Australia is still ranked a low 16 of 20 OECD countries,7 with only a modest increase in the proportion of utility patents granted to Australian inventors in the US during 1984-1999 (from 0.46% [309/67200] to 0.52% [800/153492]16).

As expected, Australia's comparative technological advantage is found mainly in mining and agriculture. This is similar to other resource-abundant OECD countries like Canada, Finland and Norway.5,7 However, our study, along with others,7,17 indicates a shift in Australia to patenting in higher technologies. Our study suggests that medical technology, especially medical biotechnology, is an increasingly important part of Australia's intellectual property portfolio. This may explain why Australia appears to be developing a technological advantage in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.17 To place this trend in a global perspective, our study would need to be repeated for other, especially OECD, countries.

There is a dip in the total number of US patents granted to Australian inventors from 1990 to 1993 (Box 1), possibly reflecting the economic recession at the time. Interestingly, the trend in medical and medical biotechnology patents did not show this decrease, suggesting that development of such technology may be more resistant to downturns in the economy. Another feature was the 51% jump in the number of US patents granted to Australian inventors from 1997 to 1998 -- possibly a flow-on from the 54% increase in the number of patent applications filed by Australians in the US between 1994 and 199818 (noting that it usually takes two years from lodging a patent application until it is granted19). This trend coincides with increased research and development spending in Australia, particularly by business (which unfortunately declined in 1996-97).20 However, these changes may also reflect increased processing of patent applications by the US Patent and Trademark Office7 -- the overall number of utility patents issued jumping 32% from 111 983 in 1997 to 147 520 in 1998.16

Our study lends support to recent findings of the importance of university-based research in underpinning high-technology patents and industries.1,21 Universities and their affiliated institutions:

  • make up more than a third of the most prolific patenting organisations;

  • own an increasing proportion of US patents granted to Australian inventors; and

  • are the source of 97% of the scientific articles cited in Australian medical patents.17

These findings could be the result of Australian governments actively encouraging universities to fund and commercialise research and develop links to industry. The CRCs were part of such initiatives, but the fact that only eight patents are owned by CRCs suggests that they are not very productive in commercialising research. However, this is difficult to judge, as the patents may be assigned to commercial or university partners.

Our data also support the emerging ideas on the importance of clusters of co-located industries and universities where collaboration and competition act as constant spurs to innovation, such as is seen in Silicon Valley in California.21 In Australia, such clusters appear to be growing in Melbourne and Sydney for industries in biotechnology and electromedical devices. This is demonstrated by examining the prolific inventors and their assignees, indicating varied links between industry and publicly funded institutions.

Strengths and weaknesses of the study

Possible weaknesses in our study relate to three areas of potential misclassification in our patent data.

Classification of country of origin: We classified patents as Australian if any inventor was an Australian resident. This may result in the inclusion of technology originating in another country but which had an Australian inventor working on it (estimated to be about 15% for medical and 7% for non-medical patents).

Definition of medical patents: Given the absence of any published guidelines, it could be debated whether certain technologies are really "medical" (such as those related to optometry and sunscreen lotions) and whether dental technologies should have been excluded.

Classification of assignees as "business": Assignees with a business-type suffix (ie, "Pty Ltd", "Ltd", "Corp", "Inc", "NV", "AG" and "GMBH"), unless detected through searches on the Internet as belonging to another category such as a technology transfer organisation, would have been misclassified as a business.

It is difficult to predict whether the first two potential biases could alter our conclusions. The third may lead to an overestimation of the number of patents owned by business. When identifying the country of origin of a patent, the main convention is to use the residency of the inventor16,17 rather than assignees, partly because a large proportion of patents are unassigned (29% in our study).

Like other technology or innovation indicators, patent statistics have advantages and disadvantages.22,23 Our study treats all patents as being of equal importance; however, a patent's commercial value can vary enormously.23,24 Furthermore, patent data do not capture all new technology, as some may not be patentable, and patenting can vary with economic conditions and with the strategic concerns of companies.23,24 For example, patenting as a means of protecting intellectual property is very important for the pharmaceutical industry but of little relevance to the rubber industry.24 In addition, the difficulty when describing patents owned by business is that many are granted under the names of subsidiaries and divisions that are different from the names of parent companies. Some companies even actively hide emerging technologies under different company names, so-called "submarine" patents.5,25

Possible mechanisms and implications for policymakers

Australia has a substantial and growing trade deficit in high-technology goods,21 making it more imperative to capture more of the economic value of Australian medical patents. But how? First, the more prolific medical inventors and their organisations could be canvassed when developing government policy which may impact on the commercialisation of medical technology. Such surveys could also identify emerging technologies, which may be the basis of new industries, enabling government to take an anticipatory stance on industry policy. Second, the medical inventors and assignees could be actively targeted with assistance in developing their medical technology.

To foster the growing culture of enterprise and innovation within academia,4 it may be worth considering a reward for the prolific inventors and assignees. Such rewards may encourage other inventors and promote inventors as role models for other scientists.


We are grateful to Associate Professors Sam Garrett-Jones and Tim Turpin from the Centre for Research Policy at the University of Wollongong for providing the database of Australian patents in the US for 1984-1994, and to Ms Christine Porter, Manager of the European and Commonwealth Office, Community of Science, for providing free access to the US patents on their website. We would like to thank Dr Dora Marinova from ISTP at Murdoch University and Professor Jane Marceau, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Western Sydney Macarthur, for their valuable advice. Eugen Mattes was the recipient of an Eva K A Nelson Medical Research Scholarship from the University of Western Australia from 1995 to 1998 and an advanced academic registrar funded by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in 1999 and the Registrar Scholarship and Research Fund of the College in 2000. We also want to acknowledge the support of Professor Max Kamien and the Department of General Practice, University of Western Australia. We would also like to thank the reviewers for their helpful comments.


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  15. SPSS for Windows [computer program]. Version 8.0. Chicago, Illinois: SPSS Inc, 1997.
  16. Patent counts by country/state and year. Utility patents. January 1, 1963 - December 31, 1999. Technology Assessment and Forecast (TAF) Program, Office for Patent and Trademark Information, US Patent and Trademark Office. < cst_utl.pdf> Accessed 10 July 2000.
  17. Narin F, Albert M, Kroll P, Hicks D. Inventing our future: the link between Australian patenting and basic science. < publications/arc_pubs/00_02.pdf> Accessed 30 October 2000.
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  19. Trilateral Statistical Report 1997. US Patent and Trademark Office. < dcom/olia/trilat/tsr97/> Accessed 10 July 2000.
  20. Science and Technology Policy Branch of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Australian science and technology at a glance 2000. <> Accessed 30 October 2000.
  21. Marceau J, Manley K, Sicklen D. The high road or the low road? Alternatives for Australia's future. Sydney: Australian Business Foundation; 1997.
  22. Patel K, Pavitt K. Paterns of technological activity: their measurement and interpretation. In: Stoneman P, editor. Handbook of the economics of innovations and technical change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995; 14-51.
  23. Industry Analysis Branch of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Measuring the knowledge-based economy. How does Australia compare? Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 1999.
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(Received 14 Jul, accepted 2 Nov, 2000)

Authors' details

University of Western Australia, Perth, WA.
Eugen Mattes, MB BS, MPH, Advanced Academic Registrar, Department of General Practice, and PhD Scholar, Department of Surgery, Fremantle Hospital;
Michael C Stacey, DS, FRACS, Associate Professor, Department of Surgery.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Correspondence: Dr E Mattes, Visiting Research Fellow, TVW Institute for Child Health Research, Division of Population Sciences, 100 Roberts Road, Subiaco, WA 6008.

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1: Number of utility patents granted in the United States to Australian-resident inventors from 1984 to 1999

Box 1

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2: The number of medical and non-medical patents granted in the United States to Australian-resident inventors between 1984 and 1999, and numbers of inventors and assignees (owners)
Medical Non-medical Total

Patents 1308 6527 7835
  Number listed
  Number of individuals
Assigned patents† 1068 (82%) 4533 (69%) 5601
  Number listed
  Number of individual
   patent (median)*

* The medians were significantly different (Mann-Whitney U test; P < 0.003). For assignees this is unlikely to be of practical significance. † Medical and non-medical groups are significantly different (Pearson χ2, P < 0.001). ‡After correcting errors or differences in spelling (16% of medical and 9% of non-medical assignees were either misspelt or spelt differently). § Calculated using ratio from medical patents: there were 1785 individual medical inventors after correcting the spelling of the initial list of 1878 individuals. So, for non-medical inventors, it was estimated that there were 7092=7461 x (1785/1878) individuals, assuming a similar 5% difference in spelling of the 7461 non-medical inventors listed initially. ¶Not equal to the sum of inventors or assignees on medical and non-medical patents, as 133 inventors and 56 assignees are on both types of patents.
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3: The location of inventors and assignees for United States patents listing Australian inventors for 1984-1999
Location of inventors Location of assignees Medical Non-medical


Unassigned patents*
Australia and other countries
Other countries*
226 (17%)
660 (50%)
8 (1%)
139 (11%)
1035 (79%)
1942 (30%)
3357 (51%)
74 (1%)
505 (8%)
5878 (90%)
Australia and other
Unassigned patents
Australia and other countries*

Other countries*
14 (1%)
48 (4%)
22 (2%)

191 (15%)
275 (21%)
52 (1%)
114 (2%)
40 (1%)

443 (7%)
649 (10%)
Total   1308 (100%) 6527 (100%)

Global Pearson χ2 is significant (P <0.001.). * Significant difference between medical and non-medical patents (P <0.001).
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4: Classifications of assignees listed on the 1068 medical and 4533 non-medical assigned US patents listing Australian-resident inventors for 1984-1999
Assignee Medical patents Non-medical patents

Research institute*
Technology transfer
Non government
Cooperative research centre
700 (59%)
206 (17%)
97 (8%)
70 (6%)
60 (5%)
30 (2.5%)

22 (1.8%)

6 (0.5%)
1 (0.1%)
1192 (100%)
3913 (80%)
181 (4%)
8 (0.2%)
195 (4%)
272 (6%)
257 (5%)

69 (1%)

7 (0.1%)
7 (0.1%)
4909 (100%)

Global Pearson χ2 is significant (P <0.001). Pairwise comparisons were done using Pearson χ2, except where Fisher's exact test was needed when an expected count was less than 5. *Significant difference between medical and non-medical patents (P <0.004). †Significant difference between medical and non-medical patents (P=0.027). CSIRO=Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
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5: The 17 most prolific Australian medical inventors listed on 10 or more Australian medical patents in the US for 1984-1999, grouped by technology
Main technology Inventor Number of patents Main assignees

Method for
  proteins and other
Simpson R 18 Ludwig Institute for
   Cancer Research, US

Cardiac pacemakers
cochlear ear

Money D
Kuzma J
Daly C
Milijasevic Z
Telectronics Pty Ltd,
   NSW, and Cochlear
   Pty Ltd, NSW
Biosensors Cornell B
Braach-Maksvytis V
Raguse B
Australian Membrane
  and Biotechnology
  Research Institute, NSW
Ribozymes - gene
Jennings P
Cameron F
14 (1)
Gene Shears Pty Ltd,
  NSW and ACT
Vitamin B12
  as carrier for
  oral drugs
Russell-Jones G 14 (1) Biotech Australia Pty Ltd,
Intraocular lenses Barrett G 13 Alcon Laboratories Inc,
  and Chiron, US, and
  Oversby Pty Ltd, WA
Relaxin gene Tregear G
Niall H
13 (1)
10 (1)
Howard Florey Institute,
Syringe or drug
Whisson M 12 Eastland Technology
  Australia Pty Ltd, WA
Grobelny D 10 Glycomed Inc, US, and
  Narhex Ltd, Hong Kong
Contact lenses Meijs G 10 (6) CIBA Vision Group, US
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6: The most prolific assignees listed on 15 or more Australian medical patents in the United States for 1984-1999
Assignee Medical Non-medical Total

University of Melbourne and affiliated
76 28 104
Telectronics NV or Telectronics Pty Ltd or
   Telectronics Pacing Systems Inc
75 0 75
CSIRO 60 272 332
Biotech Australia Pty Ltd 28 3 31
University of New South Wales and
25 51 76
Australian National University and Anutech
  Pty Ltd
23 30 53
University of Sydney 22 26 48
Monash University and affiliated
21 8 29
AMRAD Corp Ltd 21 3 24
Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research* 21 0 21
University of Queensland and Queensland
  Institute of Medical Research
  (QIMR) Council
20 18 38
Cochlear Pty Ltd 16 0 16
Commonwealth of Australia 15 87 102
Gene Shears Pty Ltd 15 0 15
Total 438 526 964

*16 of the 21 patents originated from the Melbourne branch (Dr C Thumwood, Scientific Administrator, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, personal communication).
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Received 22 May 2024, accepted 22 May 2024

  • Eugen Mattes
  • Michael C Stacey



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