How to leverage blocking patents to get the most out of R&D

Intelligence today is about using the collective knowledge of the organisation to reach an advantageous position in industry.

– Stevan Dedijer

Steve Jobs’s strategy was ‘innovate your way to success’ – with this in mind, he gave us iPods, iPhones and iPads. In a similar vein, Amazon, which started by selling books online, has grown to sell almost everything in consumer electronics, books, digital content and retail goods, among many other things, not to mention becoming a top player in cloud computing and streaming. Uber needs no introduction – the unicorn start-up is now a household name. The ease and simplicity of ordering a car in conjunction with its product and business model innovation has led the company to a market capitalisation of roughly $49 billion.

The bottom line is that innovation is the only way that a company can become successful and remain so. Nowadays, it is a collaborative process – an innovator, be it an organisation, person or team, can no longer be self-reliant. It has to tap into knowledge between different entities and sectors.

Data from patent monitoring and qualitative and quantitative analysis is a vital contributor to this knowledge and is being increasingly used by companies in which growth is driven by technological factors and capabilities. In fact, this process of analysis has become an indispensable tool for many innovative organisations to evaluate their technology progress or their involvement in tech development.

The question is, what kind of patent analysis other than the traditional approaches gives R&D-specific data? A patent set should be limited to a particular technology, assignee or timeline, all of which contribute to providing useful information.

With this in mind, can there be innovation in patent analysis as there is in tech development? The answer is definitely yes.

Blocking patents

A blocking patent is a patent cited by examiners during the examination phase, which blocks the grant of or challenge the patent under examination. Examining blocking patents is an unconventional yet innovative approach, which can provide mission-critical, actionable inputs for an R&D team and open innovation managers. If a company’s patents are blocking those of a competitor, it can see where the latter is trying to innovate. If a patent blocks those of a big player from outside its industry, this might be an indication of an upcoming threat. Similar inferences could be drawn for cases where patents are blocked by competitors or other industry giants.

Tables 1 and 2 showcase how the strategy of examining blocking patent sets can help research teams and open innovation managers in R&D.

Table 1: How blocking patents can deliver valuable understanding to R&D teams

R&D processInformation that can be extracted from blocking patents
Investigation of the area to be researchedBe it tech exploitation or just exploring, the patents that block those of your competitors can provide valuable answers. Patents that are frequently cited indicate where your competitors are directing their R&D efforts. A counter strategy to stay ahead of competition can be built in response.
Evaluating whether the research would be usefulDuring the technology exploitation phase, if a company’s patents or patents in a particular sub-tech area are cited frequently by examiners, it could be an indication of an upcoming trend.
Competitor analysis – what competitors are doing now and forecasting their growth

The count of a company’s patents that block competitors’ patents, the frequency of citation by an examiner and the technology in which there are higher citations can help a company understand its competitors’ research and product development strategies.

When a company’s patents are blocking its competitors’, it can identify top competitors by the number of maximum applications blocked by these patents. These are going to be the companies that could launch a similar product.
Analysing own expertise or identifying knowledge gaps

Knowledge gaps can be identified by comparing the technology developed by in-house and enhancement carried out by others (linked through blocking patents). If the in-house team is capable of taking the enhancement a step further, this indicates that a tech exploitation route is a viable option.

Before a company begins exploring potential directions for R&D, knowing how many times the team has produced pioneer patents could be useful. These patents have a high number of forward citations (ie, high rate of blocking others’ patents). This indicates that the technology developed by the R&D team was game changing and others tried to build over it and were challenged while enhancing it.

Analogous to in-house R&D, insight from blocking patents can enhance open innovation processes as well.

Table 2: How blocking patents can deliver valuable information to open innovation managers

Open innovation processValuable data that can be extracted from blocking patents
Investigating and collaborating with partners, competitors and universities

In order to identify targets for collaborating, companies should examine:

  • blocking patents (either backward or forward), in order to find companies that have developed similar technologies; and
  • patents by universities occurring in blocking patents set (backward or forward), which would help to shortlist the universities which have expertise in the domain.

When benchmarking the target for collaboration, blocking patent data can be used to trace competitors’ patent activity and assess the quality of their patent portfolios.

Proactive IP management: to buy and sell intellectual property and so create market for technology

Tracking when your patents are used as blocking patents can be helpful as it creates opportunity for licensing/selling a blocking patent to the company developing over it. Further, companies may acquire the patents filed over the blocking one, which gives a hold of all the developments in the domain and creates a strong R&D and IP base.

Also, acquiring the patents blocking your patent applications can help with:

  • IP protection;
  • litigation;
  • product line expansion; and
geographical expansion.


Patent analysis allows companies to understand what is coming in the next four to five years and avoids duplicate R&D effort. Examining blocking patents is critical as it gives a company direction based on what competitors are doing. The process of technology transfer and collaboration is simplified when the right targets are identified through patent data mining.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content