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Five to 10 years ago, the sequencing of a single gene was often sufficient to get a scientist's work published in a prestigious journal. Today, science has evolved to the mapping of gene families, and to the systematic determination of the interactions between gene products. Although looking at one gene is still important today, understanding its context has become much more important. Patents have evolved in a similar way.

Today, it has become increasingly important to protect not only individual inventions through the use of a patent, but also to look at patent "families" and the interactions between patents in a similar industry. It is in this way that companies can keep abreast of the latest technologies coming from their own and other companies, as well as to determine what is important to patent and what can be set aside.

Patent mapping is a field that has evolved, over the last 5 years, from a simple concept to an important new discipline in intellectual property. Like gene mapping, part of the reason for this evolution is the dramatic advances in information technology in recent years. The other significant reason for this evolution is the recent renewed interest in patents and other intellectual property in the executive boardrooms of many Fortune 100 companies.

Companies like AT&T, IBM, and Lucent have been taking a close strategic look at their patents. Because the people involved in this analysis have typically been the CEOs and VPs of the companies, it has been necessary to look at patents "from 30,000 feet," instead of the intricate analysis typically done by patent professionals. Patent mapping offers this 30,000-foot view. The maps give CEOs and VPs a way of looking at, and understanding, the patent landscape without having to understand all of the intricacies of patent law.

There are many different types of patent maps. They are usually graphical representations of either the interactions between one particular patent and related patents (either held by the same company or a competitor), or of a company's entire patent portfolio and the patents of other companies. Patent maps allow nonexperts to rapidly identify acquisition targets, patent cross-licensing targets, and future competitive threats that may not have turned up through more traditional fields of strategic analysis. They also may help companies seize patent territory that no one else has thought of protecting yet. For example, a patent map could identify all patents claiming improvements on the manufacturing of an airplane wing. From this map, you could discover competitors you didn't know existed yet, such as very small companies that may have only one or two patents that relate tangentially to airplane wings. You could also discover who else in the industry might want to license your wing technology, or who else should be licensing your wing technology (especially if their patents are improvements on your own, and need your own to function). Finally, you could find technology in the map that would help you with your own manufacturing--technology you might be able to cross-license with your own.

Patent mapping requires many skills. First and foremost among these is an ability to understand the complex scientific ideas protected by the patents themselves. Although it is possible to create a patent map by analyzing the relationships between patents without understanding the subject matter, such a map is often useless and needs to be refined by someone who understands the intricacies of the particular scientific discipline that is the basis of the invention. Thus, I expect that the need for people with scientific (and engineering) expertise in the field of patent mapping is on the increase.

Let me be more specific. In the near future, patent-mapping opportunities are likely to exist in three places. First, several consulting companies specializing in patent mapping have been launched: As their services become increasingly specialized, they will require scientists to create, and analyze, the patent maps, and to give strategic direction to their clients. The second area of opportunity is the traditional consulting and corporate finance companies, which are sure to start including patent mapping among their list of services. For instance, Ernst & Young's Corporate Finance department creates patent maps for various Canadian corporations. Finally, the third area of opportunity is the high-tech and biotech companies themselves. Ads for recent openings, even smaller biotech companies are stressing the importance of strategic intellectual property. Often these positions will be combined positions, where the person will work on both business development and intellectual property. Especially in Canada, where there is a shortage of biotech-trained management, these positions are often open to people with very little experience outside of their Ph.D. There are even cases where companies consider hiring people straight out of their Ph.D., training them to do the patent strategy on the job.

Patent mapping is a true interdisciplinary skill: It involves understanding the science, being able to see business opportunities, and (often) also requires a good understanding of patent law. But because virtually no one person has all of these skills, it appears to be open (at least for the time being) to people that have any one of these skills, and a good head on their shoulders. Ten years from now, "patent mapper" may be a standard position at any mid- to large-size technology company. Because very few people are doing the work today, this will mean lots of opportunities.