South Carolina inventors are being granted patents faster than the national rate, a fact that could bode well for business in the Palmetto State.

About 1,600 patents were granted in 2018 with at least one South Carolina inventor’s name on the award. Compared to the nearly 170,000 patents granted across the United States, it’s not a huge amount.

While patents issued in 2018 were down somewhat compared to last year, scaling back 10 years to 2009 shows patents awarded with South Carolina ties have grown by about 108 percent. That is a faster rate than those granted to American inventors as a whole, as businesses large and small aimed to capture more intellectual property.

It is hard to say which of these patents will become the most valuable. Some will never be sold as commercial products. Some inventors might have applied for one just for the reward of hanging it on their wall. Yet another could be the crux of South Carolina’s next big business.

Inventors won’t apply for patents at random, with money being a key deterrent. The cost runs somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000, according to the Small Business Innovation Research program. Then, the applicant will have to pay regular fees to keep up the patent.

Still, intellectual property attorney Doug Kim said in the years he has practiced law, he has noticed more businesses catching on that IP is an asset they can use strategically.

Kim tracks patent trends in South Carolina. He said companies and regions that have more innovation simply tend to do better financially than those that don’t — and patents granted are one way of measuring that.

“We have inventors here that are hip-deep in invention,” he said. “We’re involved in getting patents out the door, which should help the state’s economy.”

Across the country, the fastest-growing number of patent applications were in e-cigarettes, according to IFI CLAIMS, which analyzes patent trends. Much of the growth was in “simulated smoking devices,” analysts wrote.

But just one e-cigarette patent was issued this year in South Carolina. More commonly, patents were issued in metalworking and machinery, new software, medical and veterinary sciences and transportation, to name a few.

Many patents originate from an out-of-state company with a South Carolina presence. Boston-based  General Electric, which has a turbine manufacturing plant and offices in Greenville, accounts for 349 — or about 20 percent — of patents issued to South Carolina inventors in 2018. Boeing, which has commercial aircraft operations in North Charleston, backed 75.

That should be little surprise. Major corporations like GE want to stay ahead of their competitors in the intellectual property they own.

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Big business is not the only driver of patent awards, however. Kim said he has noticed individual inventors scoring patents almost as often. And universities, with their tech transfer offices, strive to capture intellectual property as well.

A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Commerce said the growth in patent activity is due in part to a growth in private-public partnerships with the universities that help fund projects. 

The National Academy of Inventors ranked the University of South Carolina 70th on a list of schools across the globe that apply for the most patents. Notably, no other South Carolina university or college is listed.

Chad Hardaway, director of the University of South Carolina’s  Technology Commercialization Office, said faculty is expressing more and more interest in seeing their research be sold.

“Faculty want to see their research applied in ways that make a real difference, and that entrepreneurial spirit has become part of the university's culture,” he said. “At the same time, researchers want to make sure their intellectual property is protected, and that’s where offices like ours can be extremely helpful.”

Hardaway said there are a few areas the university has targeted, including aerospace, supply chain, cybersecurity, health care and advanced manufacturing.

Still, even though they account for much of where research happens in South Carolina, fewer than 100 of patents issued this year came from one of the state’s three major universities.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.