Innovation and the Firm: A New Synthesis
72 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2017 Last revised: 24 Oct 2018
Date Written: May 2018
Recent scholarship highlights the prevalence of vertical disintegration in high-technology industries, wherein specialized entities along a value chain transfer knowledge-intensive assets between them. Patents play a critical role in this process by lowering the cost of technology transactions between upstream and downstream parties, thus promoting vertical disintegration. This Article, however, challenges this prevailing narrative by arguing that vertical integration pervades patent-intensive fields. In biopharmaceuticals, agricultural biotechnology, information technology, and even university-industry technology transfer, firms are increasingly absorbing upstream and downstream technology providers rather than simply licensing their patents.
This Article explains this counterintuitive development by retheorizing the relationship between innovation and the firm. Synthesizing previously disconnected lines of theory, it first argues that the challenge of aggregating tacit technical knowledge — which patents do not disclose — leads high-tech companies to vertically integrate rather than simply rely on licenses to transfer technology. Relatedly, the desire to obtain not just discrete technological assets but also innovative capacity, in the form of talented engineers and scientists, also motivates vertical integration. Due to the socially embedded nature of tacit knowledge and innovative capacity, firms frequently absorb entire pre-existing organizations and grant them significant autonomy, an underappreciated phenomenon this Article describes as “semi-integration.” Finally, strategic imperatives to achieve rapid scale and scope also lead firms to integrate with other entities rather than simply license their patents. The result, contrary to theory, is a resurgence of vertical integration in patent-intensive fields. The Article concludes by evaluating the costs and benefits of vertically integrated innovative industries, suggesting private and public mechanisms for improving integration and tempering its excesses.
Keywords: Patents, vertical integration, industrial organization, theory of the firm, tacit knowledge, technology transfer, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, agricultural biotechnology, information technology, startups, university patenting, antitrust
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