India’s innovation nation dream is becoming reality

India’s surge in patent applications and awards resembles China’s pathway towards becoming a knowledge economy, says Pushkar

April 9, 2024
An Indian student or entrepreneur works on her laptop
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An incredible 272,600 international patent applications were filed in 2023, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. That was, however, a slight decrease of just under 2 per cent from 2022. China and the US remain the leaders, but they, along with Japan and Germany, saw a decline in filings.

India, though, is a different story. Among the top 15 countries, India’s patent applications grew the fastest, at nearly 45 per cent, well above Turkey’s 8.5 per cent, the second-largest growth. Apart from these two, South Korea is the only other country to report year-on-year growth for three consecutive years.

Clearly, India is witnessing an impressive surge in patent filings. According to its patent and trademark body, India filed some 82,811 patent applications in 2022-23, up by 25 per cent on the previous year and by more than 60 per cent over five years. There has also been a significant increase in the number of patents granted, from 15,283 in 2018-19 to 34,134 in 2022-23. However, there is concern about India’s processing time of 4.3 years – compared with 1.4 years in China and two years in the US – due to a shortage of manpower.

Patent applications are often taken as a proxy for a nation’s scientific and technological progress. For India, which aspires to be counted as a great power, the patent rush is extremely encouraging. However, another more important but relatively neglected part of the story is about patent quality.

How do you evaluate this? There are only a few studies that have assessed the value of Indian patents. This needs to change. Without this information, it is difficult to make reliable estimates. But what does “quality” mean in this context? It is considered a puzzle by some, and measuring it is notoriously complicated and imprecise.

What is interesting and perhaps not altogether surprising is that India’s story regarding patent applications appears to be following the path that China has already taken. China’s enormous growth in the number of applications is often described as a “great leap forward in patenting”. However, while it has overtaken the US in patent generation, a recent study shows that China’s innovation – measured in terms of patents – is “large in scale but low in productivity”.

In sum, if the quality of Indian patents does lag behind volume, there is nothing particularly unusual about that for a developing nation. And, either way, there are reasons for India to celebrate its fast-rising number of patent applications. The details reveal other accomplishments, two of which are particularly noteworthy.

Official figures from India show that the number of Indian applications overtook the number of foreign applications, primarily by foreign companies in India. Second, a growing number of patent applications are being filed by India’s universities, including private institutions. Indeed, Lovely Professional University, Jain University and Galgotias University are filing more patents than well-known public institutions, such as several Indian Institutes of Science and Indian Institutes of Technology.

India's growing number of patent numbers indicates that the country is now very much in the global race. This is in large part due to the recent initiatives taken by the Indian government, which include procedural measures to improve efficiency and reduce patent processing time. Another simple and effective initiative has been to raise awareness about intellectual property matters across the country, including at schools and colleges.

Government officials have repeatedly encouraged and emphasised the importance of innovation. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it in January 2022: “Let us innovate for India, innovate from India.” Indians – and Indian universities, in particular – seem to be responding to this call.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa.

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