For a place as competitive as Silicon Valley, of course it means something to be No. 1.
And ranking No. 1 in the nation for producing patents is a special kind of top spot for the cradle of innovation. So go ahead and puff up your chest at the latest Brookings Institution report that says San Jose leads the country -- by a lot -- when it comes to generating patents.
Not only that, but in second place is San Francisco, the Silicon Valley suburb that in recent years has all but become a part of the valley by nurturing companies like Twitter, Zynga, Square, Splunk and on and on.
But this is about more than bragging rights. It turns out that despite the tarnished reputation of the patent system -- for being slow, for being a shakedown operation for patent trolls -- the pace of claims on invention is still a crucial gauge of an area's innovation health.
"The future is in innovation," say Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, which has tracked regional patent activity for years. "And this is, I think, one of the best measures of innovation. It's as simple as that."
The numbers are impressive. The San Jose metro area, essentially Silicon Valley, averaged just over 9,000 patent grants a year from 2007 to 2011, Brookings found. Next was San Francisco, which includes an area stretching from the city to Oakland and down to Fremont, with just over 7,000.
A San Jose area resident is 600 times more likely to come up with a patent-worthy idea than is a resident of McAllen, Texas, the Brookings report said, and "160 times more likely than a resident of Johnstown, Penn., and 100 times more likely than residents of Fresno, Calif. or Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla." (Plus a San Jose resident doesn't have to live in McAllen, Texas, Fresno or Lakeland.)
It's a far cry from the valley being finished, over, past its prime, as some speculated after the dot-com boom went bust. Patents, like venture capital, provide a way to keep score. In looking at the valley, economists consider the raw material that goes in, including investments, and the product that comes out, including patents: The idea being that the intellectual property that is protected today will become the innovative products that are being sold tomorrow.
"It's kind of an indication of companies in the tech sector that are putting out more products or more innovative products," says Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow at Brookings. "It's the fact that they're putting out another iPhone or another solar panel, something that they're selling in the market and making a profit off of."
We now live in an area of innovation clusters, brain centers that have a built-in advantage when it comes to attracting even more innovation. No, it's not something in Silicon Valley's air or water. "There is a reason why all these innovators go to the San Jose metro area or to San Francisco," says UC Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti, "and that's because they are already innovating there."
The secret lies in the critical mass of not only smart inventors, but also of a supporting cast (venture capitalists, manufacturers, lawyers, designers) that knows how innovators work.
So yes, it is one of those unfair "rich getting richer" situations -- the kind that doesn't seem so unfair when you're the ones benefiting -- and Silicon Valley certainly is. Moretti studied the phenomenon in his 2012 book "The New Geography of Jobs." "Every year hundreds of smart, ambitious innovators move their startups from Europe, Israel and Asia to Silicon Valley," he wrote. "The valley keeps its position as the world's number-one innovation hub not because those born there are smarter than anyone else, but because of its unparalleled power to attract great ideas and great talent from elsewhere."
Which allows for some more chest-puffing, but also carries an implicit warning. As powerful as the valley's innovation machine appears to be, it is not something that simply happens. We need to ensure that a steady supply of brainiacs is available to keep the idea-machine revving.
Politicians in Washington appear ready to finally tackle the immigration thicket and as they do so they should pay careful attention to policies that make it easier for entrepreneurs and technology wizards from other countries to launch new businesses in the United States. Even more daunting, we must find ways to encourage home-grown talent to gravitate toward scientific and technical fields; and we must find the money to support universities and other programs that can teach them to be the brilliant visionaries we'll need to replace the current generation.
"A boom in the tech sector means a boom in certain kinds of jobs," Hancock says. "They're all high-level jobs, highly skilled. They take specialized training, advanced degrees."
And so, sure, we should celebrate our patent superiority. And then we should get to work on keeping it.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Annual averages for Highest patent producing Metro areas
San Jose: 9,237
San Francisco: 7,003
New York: 6,907
Los Angeles: 5,456
San Diego: 3,165
Minneapolis-St. Paul: 3,068
Average of all metro areas: 299
Source: Brookings Institution analysis. Each city listed includes surrounding areas. The averages were calculated using patents granted for applications made between 2007-11, meaning some applications were still pending.