Even at a company that prides itself on innovation, Intel researcher Robert Chau occupies a special place.
The Hillsboro engineer received his 200th patent this year 40 more than anyone else at Intel and has 67 more pending.
"I never really keep track of the numbers, quite frankly, because this is really part of the job," he said.
And while its "exciting to invent new things," Chau said, "it's actually far more exciting if these inventions actually end up in your products."
It's the kind of mindset that might explain why Oregon inventors are among the nations most prolific patent producers, winning more than 2,000 a year. Intel's researchers lead the hunt, capturing about a third of that tally, but Hewlett-Packard Co., Nike and scores of others patent everything from printer technology to golf clubs.
But the same recession that has sapped Oregon's high-tech employment is evidently taking a toll on its research: Patent applications fell 13 percent last year, and are down 26 percent from 2006.
Even so, only seven states receive more patents than Oregon does on a per-capita basis. No. 1 is Washington, largely because of Microsoft.
"It's just one of the many things that reflect a fairly innovative, vibrant technology sector that is potentially an attractor for companies looking to locate somewhere," said Kassim Ferris, a partner at the Stoel Rives law firm in Portland specializing in patents and intellectual property.
"It's one more piece of hard data that points to whats going on here," he said.
Patents, which give inventors exclusive rights to their inventions, are just one measure of innovation. Many great ideas are never patented for a variety of reasons one is that patent filings disclose details of an invention, and many companies prefer secrecy to legal protections.
"That's very typical, and it can be a wise thing to do. If you keep something as a trade secret, you have effectively an indefinite monopoly on an idea. As long as no one finds out, they're not going to be able to steal it," said Marian Silberstein, a patent scientist at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in Portland, and a former Intel engineering manager.
Also, patents are expensive. Companies may spend thousands of dollars on filing fees and lawyers just to get a patent, then thousands more filing it overseas, renewing it and protecting it in court.
So businesses need to be judicious about choosing which ideas to patent, Silberstein said.
Curtis Rose, an HP vice president and assistant general counsel, agrees.
"We definitely want to use our funds working to get patents on things that are strategically important," said Rose, who is in charge of the company's patent portfolio.
Many of those strategically important inventions are in Corvallis, where Rose works. Despite eliminating thousands of jobs over the past several years — HP won't say how many remain in Corvallis — the company retains a core research group in Oregon that's central to its printer group and other innovations.
One advantage of working in Corvallis, Rose said, is that its easy for patent attorneys to keep tabs on employees' research and be alert for ideas that need patent protection.
"It's a small town. We know who the engineers are," he said. "Having that relationship with the inventors really helps, because they're able to let us know informally what they're working on."
At Intel, the patent process starts when employees file a disclosure for an idea with patent potential.
Committees of patent lawyers and technical experts each meet a half-dozen times a year, laboriously studying employees patent portfolios to determine which ones are most valuable to the company and if they are, whether a patent is the best way to protect an idea.
One issue is: Are you going to be able to tell that somebody else is doing it, said David Simon, Intel's chief patent lawyer.
For example, he said, if Intel were to patent a technology for testing finished semiconductors, it might never know whether a rival had adopted that same idea: Chip testing is done behind closed doors.
Intel employs about 80,000 people, but patent activity is confined to about 2,000 researchers. That reflects the concentration of Intels research among a core group.
It doesn't explain, though, why Chau accounts for so many patents.
"It may be because of the area of research," Chau said. "I'm doing research on nanotechnology, process technology."
A components researcher, Chau investigates the materials that Intel uses in its microprocessors, looking for new ways to improve performance and overcome the barriers of physics that arise as chips' features shrink to the atomic scale.
That's crucial to keeping up the rapid pace of computing innovation, an advantage Intel jealously guards. Simon said the company has spent more than $6 million securing and protecting Chau's patents.
"Obviously we don't spend that kind of money just for the enjoyment of seeing him get a lot of patents," Simon said.
More than 20 years into his career at Intel, Chau, 49, has had time to see many of his ideas find their way into the company's processors. "That's always the goal, he said, not a patent.
Among his younger colleagues, though, Chau said the patent itself can still be a powerful motivator and a symbol of accomplishment.
"Invention is about human spirit, and human spirit is about passion," he said. "You have to be passionate about your job. That's what I tell my young engineers: When you're passionate, you're creative."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com