When the Wright Brothers flew in 1903, Dayton had more patents per capita than any other U.S. city, records show.
And that was before NCR, Delco Labs, Frigidaire, General Motors, Mound and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base invented products or processes that have transformed the world.
“At one point, Dayton was essentially the Silicon Valley of its day,” said Eron Bucciarelli-Tieger, CEO of Sounstr and an Englewood resident.
While the Dayton area does not produce the number of patents it once did, innovation is well alive today with area inventors, researchers and companies.
It can be found at the Air Force Research Lab, which does more than $4 billion of research nationally, all anchored at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Or the University of Dayton Research Institute, where more than 500 employees conducted about $117 million of sponsored research in fiscal year 2016, an increase of almost 20 percent over 2015.
It can also be found in individual inventors like Jon Jackson of Centerville who has invented a machine that can mow your lawn and eradicate weeds without chemicals —all at the same time.
Or there’s Joe D’Silva, founder of P&C Pharma in Washington Twp., who devised a way to blend medicines into a liquid blend that can be easily swallowed — and at what he calls a reasonable cost.
U.S. Patent and Technology Office records show that more than 3,500 technology-class patents have been awarded to people or companies from Dayton between 2000 and 2015.
That’s well below the Cincinnati area that leads the state with 13,482 patents or the 143,473 created in the Silicon Valley area in California during the same time period, but it’d only a glimpse of the rich history of invention in Dayton.
Dayton has an array of inventions that have made history: Piloted powered aviation. The cash register. The automotive self-starter. The search engine. Pop-top cans. And much more.
That spirit of innovation remains alive — although it’s quieter than it once was, some say.
“Dayton is probably not a town that is going to build the next Facebook,” said Scott Koorndyk, president of the Entrepreneurs Center.
What Dayton inventors specialize in is research, particularly military and business-to-business research, he said. “Dayton builds real businesses with real technology,” Koorndyk said.
Most consistently, Dayton answers the challenge of the warfighter.
The Air Force as a service is one of the biggest generators of patents. The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, secured 49 patents in 2016, from work across the country.
Locally, AFRL garnered 16 patents from work at Wright-Patterson in fiscal year 2016, and so far in fiscal 2017, AFRL personnel at the base have won 10 patents, a base spokesman said.
Two years from now, AFRL patents will approach 100, predicted William Harrison, small business director for AFRL.
That relentless push to invent is urged on by the AFRL’s single mission: Solve problems for pilots and warfighters.
“We are constantly being challenged with tougher and tougher problems,” Harrison said.
The Dayton area “absolutely” helps AFRL fulfill its mission, he said.
Harrison said Dayton has strengths in materials, manufacturing, and increasingly, cyber-security and health care research.
“Those are the ones I see almost on a daily basis,” he said.
There’s a fair bit of famous technology out there with ties to Dayton, Dayton History’s Brady Kress said.
The iPhone didn’t originate in Dayton, he said. “But the LCD sure did, the liquid crystal display.”
A FUTURE OF INNOVATION
That spirit of innovation may be Dayton’s history, but it’s also the future, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and others said
PATENTS BY METRO AREAS PAST 15 YEARS
“I think the community is really trying to do something different. There are a lot of really positive things evolving,” said Roger Edwards, entrepreneur in residence for Accelerant, the Dayton Development Coalition’s entrepreneurial venture fund.
Accelerant has invested money in nine companies and is considering a 10th, with two or three others at different stages in the fund’s due diligence process.
“Innovation is alive” locally, said Hugh Bolton, senior cyber and intelligence fellow at Wright State University. “I believe that.”
Patents grant an inventor of something new ownership to her or his invention for a set time from its filing, usually 20 years. The idea is to put a stake in the ground and exclude others from making or selling one’s established intellectual property.
A search of the U.S. patent collection database for patent applicants from Dayton shows 3,519 technology-class patents have been awarded to people or companies from Dayton between the years 2000 and 2015.
But the data is limited: The database lists the origin city based on the address of the inventor listed first on the patent. Patents can have many inventors who are involved, all from potentially different cities. That means the number of patents with a Dayton connection is likely higher.
And patents in general can be misleading as an indicator of prosperity and innovation, cautioned Meghan Sheehan, a licensing associate at Wright State University and patents attorney.
“Patents are important, but they’re not the end-all, be-all of a business strategy related to innovation,” she said.
Better evidence of innovation may be revenue and the number of jobs created, Bolton said.
Still, when it comes to demonstrating publicly that something new has been devised, patents do matter, Sheehan said.
A look at the government’s patent database shows a who’s who of commercial innovators in Ohio, many who have a presence in the Dayton area and Southwestern Ohio or have a history here.
In Ohio, the private company securing the highest number of patents since 2011 is Procter and Gamble, with a total 1,346 patents, according to a U.S. Patents and Trademark Office search.
A BROAD BASE OF TALENT
When it comes to intellectual property, Dayton has a lot going for it, observers say.
Health care in particular is emerging as a strength, Harrison said, pointing to Ascend Innovations, CareSource, both in downtown Dayton, as well as the area’s vibrant hospitals.
“A huge part of the revitalization of the downtown is health care companies,” Harrison said.
Dayton enjoys a “broad base” talent of engineers, computer programmers, many others, said Daniel Kincaid, chief executive at Sense Diagnostics in Loveland and an investor with Cincinnati’s Queen City Angels, a group of high net-worth investors
“You have a lot of assets, obviously,” Kincaid said. “You have the (Wright-Patterson Air Force) base and the Air Force Research Lab. You have UD (University of Dayton). You have universities. You have big companies here that are tech-heavy, tech savvy.”
But Dayton doesn’t yet have an equivalent of Queen City Angels, a private group of venture capitalists, who unlimber their wallets to encourage local inventors.
“I’ve met a few people in Dayton who are interested in investing in start-ups, who want to get involved,” Kincaid said. “I know Roger (Edwards) is working on that, on putting together a group of those folks.”
Added Kincaid: “It’s starting to happen.”
Sense Diagnostics itself is working with a Franklin company for production of prototypes of his company’s brainchild, non-invasive monitors that can help doctors determine the severity of a brain injury.
Kincaid said inventors and start-ups will go where there is funding and backing.
“At least for us, we have an Ohio focus. It doesn’t matter if you’re Dayton,” Kincaid said of Queen City Angels. “We invest in Columbus, we invest in Cleveland. Frankly, we’ll go to wherever the best technologies are. From an investment perspective, we invest all over the state.”
However, he added: “That’s certainly gotten better (in Dayton) through the efforts of Accelerant and some of the other folks here in town.