Nanotechnology and the Art of the Patent Search

The Importance of a solid research question

Patent searching is an art form. Literally. That satisfying feeling of crafting the perfect search is nothing less than “an activity of imaginative or creative self-expression”. To find the patents you are looking for, you need to express a set of criteria within your search tool to achieve a specific result. A result that you must do your best to anticipate and predict. In other words, you need to imagine what you might find before you look for it. If you do not know specifically what you are looking, for then your research will yield fewer, or irrelevant, results.

The details already known or available to you might be numerous. Perhaps you know the terminology and language of the technology spaces in which the patent was developed. Perhaps you know the companies involved in the production of the relevant products. Maybe you know the year of inception for a specific technology, the inventors who dreamt it up, or the lawyers who protected it. Unfortunately, you won’t know everything, so in this blog, we look at some tips and tricks to use in order to get the most out of your patent searching.

If you go in with a specific research question, know what you are looking for and how to find it, then you will be successful. The part that can throw people is the ‘how to find it’ part, for which we need to apply different types of search logic in combination with the best use of the different pieces of information that are contained within patent documents.

Field search - What the Pros Use

The most precise and advanced way of searching is the field search, which is used by roughly 90% of all users – and for a very good reason. By thinking of a search in a boolean manner, we can define exactly what we want to find from patents. For instance, a patent should include word 'x' AND word 'y' OR another word but NOT word 'z.' Think of this in a real life situation. If we are looking for patents relating to drones, we might want patents that include this word, along with 'unmanned aerial vehicle' but we want to exclude any words pertaining to drones from the bee-keeping world!

Using such logic when approaching a search allows for the most control over exactly what comes back in your search in an algebraic manner.

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Breadth of the patent search

One of the key decisions you need to make before embarking on your research is how broad to make your search. Think of it like trying to catch a particular kind of fish: cast your net wide and you’ll be likely to catch the kind of fish you want, but also many that you don’t want. On the other hand, cast your net small and you’ll have less fish to sort through, but you might miss out on some that you want.

This is where searching moves out of the realm of pure logic alone and also involves a degree of intuition or market knowledge. You should always include as many variations of the technology name that you can think of. For example if you were searching for prosthetic hip within the claims of patent documents, you would suggest including words in your query such as "hip replacement" and "titanium hip". Your search would look like this:

CLMS:(“prosthetic hip” OR “hip replacement” OR “titanium hip”)

This is a query that will look for the various terms for a prosthetic hip, without generalizing the technology. On the other hand, an example of a search that might be too broad could be:

Prosthetic joint hip titanium

This search would return any patent that has all the mentioned words, but it does not allow for alternatives for key terms, and it does not specify that the terms have to come from any particular section of the document.

Using Patent Classificaton Codes to guide a more accurate search

In the penultimate example, our 'equation' narrows down the search to the claims within patents only, which is a sure fire way of finding the most relevant patents. However, these patents can be used to define the International Patent Classification (IPC) codes that relate to specific industry areas. 

This is perhaps one of the most useful aspects of conducting a patent search. If you’re not familiar, a patent classification is like a library code. If you were to walk into a library today and ask a librarian to show you the section for, let’s say, the horror genre, the librarian would give you a fairly simple code, which would take you to a fairly large portion of that library. Yet if you were to be more specific with a request and ask that librarian to take you to the section that’s concerned with robotic werewolves in Latvia, the librarian would give you a much more specific, and likely longer code which takes you to a small section.

Classifications can be important to patent searches because they do not have the same flaws as keywords. It doesn’t matter if I describe my skateboard patent as a “skateboard”, or a “flat panel of wood with multiple attached wheels meant for recreational travel”. That patent will still have the IPC (international patent classification) of A63C17/01. Patent writers will often use tricky and odd language to avoid you finding their document, but they cannot avoid an examiner's decision to put it in a certain classification.

There are lots of other things based on the fields within patent documents that we can specify when conducting a search. Aspects of a patent such as the assignees, inventors, and dates are commonly used to define the sort of patents you are getting returned.

For example, one common refinement that people will often make is to limit patents to the last 20 years to omit as many expired patents as possible. You might restrict the most recent date in an analysis to rid yourself of the fact that there is almost always a drop in activity in the last 2 years because of the publication lag. You might know that the innovation you are researching is a development only seen in the last 5 years. These are some of the many reasons why you might limit your search.

What's this got to do with nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a broad topic area that influences many vertical sectors in different ways. In the words of nanotech investment expert Anthony Vicari, “it’s like talking about a total market for metal and lumping together gold, steel, titanium and uranium.”

It is therefore important to be able to segment and define the market carefully when considering trends and future market direction and prospects. IP analysis provides an extremely accurate way to define and then review emerging market segments that have not reached widespread market adoption. IP analysis provides insight into field-specific applications of this emerging technology space to reveal the direction of research. For some quick ideas of how this works in practice, we used the nanotechnology area as our inspiration for exploring sub-segementation of searches in more detail. 

Whatever your area of expertise, the more patent searching you do, the more you will find yourself admiring your own artful ways of obtaining the exact results you are looking for. Trust me, it becomes extremely addictive!   Download our Nanotechnology Whitepaper