The Power of Group Invention

Groups offer a greater ability to tackle complex or large scale problems.  As the laws of entropy are demonstrating, the longer our society exists, the more complex it becomes. With each incremental step mankind takes into a more technological, fractured and populated world, the process of invention and innovation will be more complex and difficult. Therefore, it is logical to assume groups will solve a majority of tomorrow’s problems.

In fact, collaborative invention is already on the rise. In a study of patent data over the past forty years, an obvious trend of patents by groups of inventors has emerged. In the 1970s, each patent filed had an average of 1.6 inventors attached to it. In the year 2000, that number had increased to 2.5 inventors per patent. As shown below, that number is mostly due to the number of “highly collaborative” patents that include three or more inventors.[1] In forty years, the number of “highly collaborative” patents has risen from around 12% to over 40%. That’s quite a jump.

The Power of Group Invention: Excerpt from My Book, A Curious Path, Creativity in an Age of Abundance


Numbers like this can mean a variety of things. One thing could be that funders are channeling more toward projects with more than one person. Possibly, this is because intellectual property can be safer in groups because of how patents work. Multi-inventor patents usually have larger patent families insulating them from being ripped-off. Patent families are sets of patents filed in other countries or areas to protect initial filings. A single gizmo could obtain patents as a product, component and technology. Filing patent families is time consuming and difficult for a sole inventor. Corporations, on the other hand, allocate resources specifically to generate protective patents. E-Ink, for one, holds over 140 patents for technology related to the Amazon Kindle.[2] Apple’s 200-plus patents for the iPhone are so broad “in scope to cover virtually any mobile device with an interface that incorporates the finger movements used to operate Apple’s touchscreen devices” that Apple can defend its patents against any touch screen device.[3] In a sense, Apple bullies competitors with its patents. Strangely, an inventors patent is actually safer with a corporation.

Another reason may be that contemporary inventions are too much for one person to handle. Biotechnology for instance includes medical applications, agriculture and biodiesel. That’s a broad range of domains.  The multitudes of domains existing in these compartmentalized areas are beyond the capabilities of one person to fully understand. To create something in the area of Pharmacogenomics (how a person’s genetics affects their reactions to drugs), expertise in both genetics and pharmaceuticals would be necessary. Working in these fields is also crazy expensive. Lab costs alone in any of these areas would bust a lone inventor.

Even if a person were to clear these hurdles, still another deadly obstacle exists, one that can scuttle the best of inventions—the courtroom. We live in an extremely litigious era. Lawsuits, frivolous or not, can wipe out a person overnight. Large pharmaceutical companies fend off claims with legal departments. Inventors employed by large corporations are heavily insulated and less impacted by the proceedings.  Separating the creative activities from the legal ones allows inventors to worry about what they are supposed to be doing, inventing, not representing themselves in court.

One of the worst mistakes an inventor can make is not understanding when he is over his head.



[1] Patently O. July 9, 2009. (accessed July 3, 2012).

[2] Gilroy, Lindsey, and Tammy D’Amato. “How many patents does it take to build an iPhone?” Intellectual Property Today. 2012. (accessed July 30, 2012).

[3] Poeter, Damon. “Apple iPhone Patent a Huge Blow to Rival Smartphone.” PC Magazine. June 22, 2011.,2817,2387401,00.asp (accessed July 30, 2012).