You’re looking at a map of patents granted in the U.S. on average each year, from 2007 to 2011, courtesy of a new report by The Brookings Institution. Patents are a commonly used measure for innovation, and so the quick takeaway from this map is this: innovation happens mostly in a handful of cities across the world. And Boston is one of them. As the authors write:

Most U.S. patents—63 percent—are developed by people living in just 20 metro areas, which are home to 34 percent of the U.S. population.

Far and away the two most active regions for patenting activity are Silicon Valley and the Boston to Washington corridor. If you want to work in one of the various “innovation industries” – software, hardware, robotics, cleantech, biotech, etc. – you’d do well to move to one of these areas. Yes, plenty of innovation does happen elsewhere, and when you look at the data on a per worker basis, places like Burlington, Vermont end up doing surprisingly well. And people choose to live where they do for various reasons. None of that erases the fact that innovation is very, very concentrated. (If you are seriously considering moving to get into tech, I recommend checking out Richard Florida’s book Who’s Your City.)

The Companies With the Most Patents in Boston

One of the most interesting bits of the Brookings report is that it breaks down patents by company, and by region. Across the U.S., IBM was granted by far the most patents for the 2007-2011 time period, and has been a top contender since the 70’s, when the Brookings dataset begins. Here are the companies with the most Boston patent activity in 2011:

  1. Boston Scientific – 210
  2. MIT – 207
  3. IBM – 196
  4. EMC – 164
  5. CISCO – 118
  6. Mass General Hospital – 94


What Makes a Region More Likely to Patent

The researchers summarize some of the variables that predict patenting activity:

Research universities, a scientifically-educated workforce, and collaboration play an important role in driving metropolitan innovation.

Boston, of course, is home to numerous leading research universities, and has an extremely well educated workforce. The report also notes the importance of government funding for basic R&D, a topic I’ve written about before.

Some Caveats

Measuring innovation is notoriously tricky, and though patents are a popular metric, they’re a controversial one. As the Brookings report notes, some innovation sectors patent at a more frequent rate than others. That tech patents at a higher rate than healthcare and finance doesn’t in and of itself mean the former is truly more innovative. And while it’s tempting to see the rise in patents granted as a sign of increasing innovation, the patent wars loom large over this data. It’s not clear that the ability to get a patent on every little software tweak is a good thing, and it’s certainly possible that this explains a good part of the rise. (I’ve asked the Brookings folks to weigh in on this.)

But while there are reasons to doubt patents as a perfect measure of innovation, there are reasons to accept it as a pretty solid proxy, and one of a few key metrics that together capture the idea. As the Brookings report details, GDP per worker is significantly higher in cities with more patents, and the effect persists even after controlling for other relevant variables.

Go give the full interactive feature a read. And if you work in tech and are planning a move, I’d recommend using the map above to create your short list.