As I begin to write this column, the fall 2015 American Chemical Society Meeting in Boston is underway. The chosen theme for this meeting is “Innovation from Discovery to Application.” One could write about how information is used throughout the innovation process, but I have chosen a different topic, though one still related to the theme. Accordingly, here we will take a look at innovation within the field of chemical information and cheminformatics.
To do this, I have searched for patents related to chemical information and cheminformatics. At first glance, it may seem that there are not that many. In the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database of granted patents, the phrase “chemical information” occurs only twice in a patent title, twenty times in a patent abstract, and forty-seven times in claims. Moreover, most of the retrieved patents are about analytical instruments retrieving “chemical information” about a sample. “Cheminformatics” and its variants “chemoinformatics” and “chemiinformatics” are even more rarely used: once in a title, twice in claims, and zero times in U.S. patent abstracts. By combining several other search strategies and different databases, however, I was able to find 345 U.S. patents, and U.S. published, but ungranted applications related to our topic.
Of course, the usual disclaimers of prior art searching apply here. Since the search strategies are based on keywords and classifications, it is possible for the search to miss relevant documents that use different terminology or have been classified into a different classification. Also, for convenience I have chosen to examine U.S. patent documents only; contributions to chemical information and cheminformatics that were not patented in the United States are therefore ignored. Finally, the 345 U.S. patent documents (granted patents plus published abstracts) have been hand-selected for relevance, since the search strings used favored recall over precision. This adds a subjective element to the search, as does the fact that cheminformatics as a discipline does not have precise boundaries. Thus, it is entirely possible that a different searcher would have found a different set of patent documents to analyze. However, I believe that the set of patent documents used here is representative of the total.
Figure 1 is a pie chart showing the distribution of original assignee types of all U.S. patents and published patent applications in the dataset. Assignees have been classified into five types: academic, corporate, government, nonprofit, and private (meaning one or more individuals, usually the inventors). Note that ownership of a patent can change hands after the initial assignment.
Figure 2 is a bar chart showing the year of filing of U.S. patents and published, unissued patents in the field of chemical information and cheminformatics. It appears that applications for chemical information and cheminformatics are rare until 1988, which is approximately when personal computers with graphical user interfaces became popular. There is a possible peak in activity in the early 2000's, but it’s difficult to state that with certainty, since recent years are always underrepresented in this type of chart due to the time between filing an application and publishing it as either a published application or an issued patent.
As for other evidence of innovation in the cheminformatics field, the simple fact that the ACS Division of Chemical Information was able to field a technical program with a scheduled 218 presentations in 22 topics (including the co-sponsored symposia) speaks for itself. (Admittedly, these numbers are much higher than average). Other evidence is the existence of at least three journals on the subject: Journal of Chemoinformatics, Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, and Molecular Informatics; and others, if one is allowed to encroach into the related field of computational chemistry. So congratulate yourselves: you are part of an innovative group of people!
David Shobe, Assistant Editor, Chemical Information Bulletin