Technological breakthroughs are contagious: They break out in specific areas, then spread. To identify the most innovative cities of the 21st century, we compiled U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data on utility patents (for a new invention or process) issued between 2000 and 2011--and analyzed which metropolitan areas were the national leaders in each patent category.
We found several hubs of industry fueling new ideas. These innovation clusters create an "ecosystem effect," says Steven Pedigo, a director at the Creative Class Group, an advisory group founded by urban theorist Richard Florida. "It's a concentration of assets," Pedigo says. "Companies have everything they need to be successful: talent, capital, other firms." And there's nothing like a little competition to make you more resourceful.
Patent Leader: More than 10,000 patents were issued to organizations in the San Jose area in 2011, nearly 10 percent of all U.S. patents issued that year. Silicon Valley also leads in 66 of the 400 patent classes, the most in the nation.
Tech Town Of course, many categories are in high tech: semiconductors, networking, and artificial intelligence. Some surprises: television and metalworking.
Toehold: Portland holds the most patents in some shoe-related classes. After Nike launched in 1964, other athletic footwear businesses flocked to the area, including Adidas and Keen.
Meeting Projections: Portland leads in a few other classes, including image projectors (Epson has operations nearby).
Movies and Meds: Los Angeles is No. 1 in 46 patent classes, including many associated with Hollywood--lighting, audio, and motion-picture optics. Home to several medical schools, hospitals, and medical-device makers, L.A. also dominates some medical-patent classes, including syringes, dentistry, and physical therapy.
Jet Powered: Once the aerospace capital of the U.S., the area manages to hang onto the most patents in that class, too.
Wireless Hub: Sparked by Qualcomm's founding there in 1985, San Diego now hosts some 800 telecom companies.
On the Green: San Diego is also No. 1 for patents on "games using a tangible projectile," which typically means golf. More than 30 golf-equipment manufacturers, including TaylorMade and Callaway, have set up shop in the sunny locale, home to Torrey Pines and about 90 other golf courses.
The Doctor Is in: The Twin Cities make up a big hub of medical patents, leading in classes involving surgical tools, prosthetics, and bandages. Many medical-device makers have operations in the area, including Medtronic and St. Jude Medical. And the Mayo Clinic is headquartered in nearby Rochester, Minnesota.
Like Glue: The area also leads in so-called stock-material patents, which include adhesives and coatings (3M is in St. Paul).
Heat and Serve: The Windy City dominates 36 patent classes in various industries, the largest of which is food. The area has a long history in food manufacturing--Kraft, Quaker Oats, and Wrigley are all based there.
Keep it Clean: With the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world, Chicago leads in liquid-purification patents. A few others: electronic components, receptacles, and marine propulsion
Carpet Land: Atlanta leads the nation in fabric patents. North Georgia produces about 80 percent of the nation's carpeting.
Ka-Ching: The area is also No. 1 for merchandising patents, many from NCR, which makes self-checkout systems in nearby Duluth, Georgia.
Still Humming: The Motor City is running strong as far as patents go. Detroit is 10th in the nation, with more than 25,000 patents issued between 2000 and 2011.
Auto Shop: It also leads the country in 38 different patent classes, the majority of them involving cars or car parts.
Fun with Beakers: Forget cheese steaks--Philadelphia is the hot spot for chemistry. DuPont, Dow Chemical, and many other chemical makers have operations in the area, which leads in several patent classes related to chemicals.
Biotech Boom: Philadelphia's University City Science Center, a science startup incubator, has also helped fuel the local biotech industry.
Radiation and Bulbs: A hub of scientific innovation, Boston leads the country in radiant energy, a class that includes medical-imaging patents from the area's research companies and universities. The city has become a hotbed of LED technology, with lighting companies such as Philips Color Kinetics and Osram Sylvania.
Oddball: Boston also leads in printing patents, though many belong to Acushnet--based in nearby Fairhaven, Massachusetts--for methods of printing on its Titleist golf balls.
New York City
In Fashion: The Big Apple leads in an impressive 48 patent classes. A fashion mecca, New York City dominates in several related classes, including apparel, foundation garments, clasps, and jewelry. The city also leads in patents on cash registers and financial transactions, as well as drugs (Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and ImClone are all headquartered there).
Royal Flush: A few of the more surprising wins for New York City: animal husbandry, ammunition, and toilets