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The state of innovation 2010: aerospace, agriculture surge; computing leads

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The aerospace, agriculture and petrochemical industries showed a meteoric rise in innovation in 2010, but the computer and automotive industries stay in the lead, according to a new report.

If you could measure 2010 in terms of brainpower, it was a banner year.

That's because innovation levels -- as measured by patent volume -- are higher than ever, with activity across the majority of 12 key industries, from aerospace to telecommunications, showing an increase from 2009.

That's according to Thomson Reuters' 2010 Innovation Report, which was published on Wednesday.

According to the report, aerospace showed the strongest surge in patent activity between 2009 and 2010, with an astounding 25 percent boost.

In second place was the agriculture industry, with an 11 percent gain year over year; rounding out the top three is petroleum and chemical engineering, with a nine percent gain for the year.

Here's a look at all 12 industries, arranged by 2010 patent volume:

  1. Computers & Peripherals: 212,622 patents in 2010; down 6% from 2009.
  2. Automotive: 88,867 patents in 2010; down 0% from 2009.
  3. Telecommunications: 87,920 patents in 2010; down 3% from 2009.
  4. Semiconductors: 86,479 patents in 2010; down 9% from 2009.
  5. Pharmaceuticals: 59,350 patents in 2010; down 0% from 2009.
  6. Medical Devices: 52,117 patents in 2010; up 6% from 2009.
  7. Petroleum & Chemical Engineering: 42,304 patents in 2010; up 9% from 2009.
  8. Domestic Appliances: 36,816 patents in 2010; up 6% from 2009.
  9. Food, Tobacco & Fermentation: 36,048 patents in 2010; up 2% from 2009.
  10. Aerospace: 32,622 patents in 2010; up 25% from 2009.
  11. Agrochemicals & Agriculture: 22,726 patents in 2010; up 11% from 2009.
  12. Cosmetics: 6,438 patents in 2010; down 3% from 2009.

The first thing you'll notice is that despite those bursts of activity, it's still the computers, automotive, telecommunications and semiconductor industries that lead industry in terms of sheer number of patents.

A few key points about each industry:

Aerospace

The industry's year-over-year success was driven by a 108 percent increase in Space Vehicle and Satellite Technologies, which makes up 29 percent of the overall industry. Leading this sector were Japan's Sharp and Korea's LG and Samsung.

Agrochemicals and Agriculture

Agrochemicals led the industry in growth, with a 14 percent boost year over year. However, traditional agriculture remains by far the industry's largest sector, with 67 percent of the overall industry. Leaders include Bayer Cropscience, BASF and Sumitomo Chemical.

Automotive

In what may be a harbinger for things to come, overall patent volume for the automotive industry actually surpassed the telecommunications and semiconductors industries in 2010.

And as you might expect, it was alternatively powered vehicles that led the way, posting a 21 percent increase from 2009. (It's also the largest sector by patent volume.)

Top companies include Japan's Toyota, followed distantly by Nissan and Honda. In fact, GM was the only U.S. company to crack the "alternative" top 10, at number seven.

Computers & Peripherals

Despite a drop from 2009, computers remains the most innovative technology area in 2010. Surprisingly, there was a huge 29 percent increase in patents related to scanners. However, traditional computers retain the lion's share of the industry's patent volume, with 71 percent. Top companies: Korea's Samsung and Japan's Matsushita and Toshiba.

Cosmetics

Perfume and makeup were the only areas that showed patent growth in 2010, posting 17 and 5 percent increases, respectively. The latter is more important, however, as it's responsible for 43 percent of all patents in this industry. Top companies: France's L'Oreal, followed distantly by Japan's KAO and Korea's Amorepacific.

Domestic Appliances

The kitchen remains the most popular place for domestic gadgetry, and showed a 9 percent increase in patent volume from 2009. Top companies: LG, Matsushita and Bosch & Siemens.

Food, Tobacco and Fermentation

Fermentation is the hot ticket in this sector, with 82 percent of all patents and showing the largest increase from last year, at 10 percent. Meat-related patents took a tumble, dropping 52 percent from 2009. Top firms: DuPont and Monsanto.

Medical Devices

Diagnostics equipment led the way in patent volume, with 35 percent of the industry, but medical aids and oral administration showed the most growth, with 11 percent over 2009. Top diagnostics firms were all Japanese: Fujifilm, Olympus and Toshiba.

Petroleum and Chemical Engineering

It's all about chemical engineering in this industry, which represents 70 percent of all patents and the most active, with a 14 percent boost from last year. Toyota led the pack by far in this category.

Pharmaceuticals

If you're wondering what Big Pharma is up to, wonder no more: organics represent the majority of all patents from this industry, at 61 percent. But its inorganics that show the most activity, with a 48 percent increase. Big in organics are Seiko Epson, Hoffman LaRoche and the University of California.

Semiconductors

The industry's year-over-year drop in patents is due to double-digit decreases in three sub-sectors: integrated circuits; discrete devices; and memories, film and hybrid circuits. On the other hand, materials and processes showed gains, thanks to Korea's Samsung and Hynix Semiconductor and Japan’s Toshiba.

Telecommunications

As you may expect, mobile is hot, hot, hot, and remains the largest group among all patents filed for this industry. But look to the stuff that connects such devices for the surge -- data transmission networks -- and you'll find a 20 percent boost over 2009.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure