Tuesday, April 23, 2019

How Does Patent Eligibility Affect Investment?

David Taylor (SMU) was interested in how patent eligibility decisions at the Supreme Court affected venture investment decisions, so he thought he would ask. He put together an ambitious survey of 14,000 investors at 3000 firms, and obtained some grant money to provide incentives. As a result, he got responses from 475 people at 422 firms. The response rate by individual is really low, but by firm it's 12% - not too bad. He performs some analysis of non-responders, and while there's a bit of an oversample on IT and on early funding, it appears to be somewhat representative.

The result is a draft on SSRN and forthcoming in Cardozo L. Rev. called Patent Eligibility and Investment. Here is the abstract:
Have the Supreme Court’s recent patent eligibility cases changed the behavior of venture capital and private equity investment firms, and if so how? This Article provides empirical data about investors’ answers to those important questions. Analyzing responses to a survey of 475 investors at firms investing in various industries and at various stages of funding, this Article explores how the Court’s recent cases have influenced these firms’ decisions to invest in companies developing technology. The survey results reveal investors’ overwhelming belief that patent eligibility is an important consideration in investment decisionmaking, and that reduced patent eligibility makes it less likely their firms will invest in companies developing technology. According to investors, however, the impact differs between industries. For example, investors predominantly indicated no impact or only slightly decreased investments in the software and Internet industry, but somewhat or strongly decreased investments in the biotechnology, medical device, and pharmaceutical industries. The data and these findings (as well as others described in the Article) provide critical insight, enabling evidence-based evaluation of competing arguments in the ongoing debate about the need for congressional intervention in the law of patent eligibility. And, in particular, they indicate reform is most crucial to ensure continued robust investment in the development of life science technologies.
The survey has some interesting results. Most interesting to me was that fewer than 40% of respondents were aware of any of the key eligibility decisions, though they may have been vaguely aware of reduced ability to patent. More on this in a minute.

There are several findings on the importance of patents, and these are consistent with the rest of the literature - that patents are important for investment decisions, but not first on the list (or second or third). Further, the survey finds that firms would invest less in areas where there are fewer patents - but this is much more pronounced for biotech and pharma than it is for IT. This, too, seems to comport with anecdotal evidence.

But I've always been skeptical of surveys that ask what people would do - stated preferences are different than revealed preferences. The best way to measure revealed preferences would be through some sort of empirical look at the numbers, for example a differences-in-differences approach before and after these cases (though having 60% of the people say they haven't heard of them would certainly affect whether the case constitutes a "shock" - a requirement of such a study).

Another way, which this survey attempts, is to ask not what investors would do but rather ask what they have done. This amounts to the most interesting part of the survey - investors who know about the key court opinions say they have moved out of biotech and pharma, and into IT. So much for Alice destroying IT investment, as some claim (though we might still see a shift in the type of projects and/or the type of protection - such as trade secrets). But more interesting to me was that there was also a similar shift among those folks who claimed not to know much about patent eligibility or think it had anything to do with their investment. In other words, even for that group who didn't actively blame the Supreme Court, they were shifting investments out of biotech and pharma and into IT.

You can, of course, come up with other explanations - perhaps biotech is just less valuable now for other reasons. But this survey is an important first step in teasing out those issues.

There are a lot more questions on the survey and some interesting answers. It's a relatively quick and useful read.

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