At the end of 2020, IAM reported that Sony’s acquisition of gate-all-around (GAA) transistor patents from Intel. It is an interesting deal, because on the one hand you may have electronics products, image sensors, and entertainment industry, then on the other hand microprocessors and solid-state drives. There is even no need to mention which products relate to which company. Thus, the question is: What do Sony and Intel have in common that Sony buys patents from Intel? The LexisNexis® PatentSight® innovation analytics platform was used in this analysis.
The patent portfolio in question
The respective reassignment document lists 35 simple patent families with active US patents. Looking at the drawings shows that the portfolio comprises various technologies like packaging, semiconductor process, systems, computer memory, and image projection. Surprisingly, there are several first page drawings which points to gate-all-around transistor (GAA) technologies, the expected next transistors technology.
Back in 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, posited that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every year. For most of the time, this was achieved in the semiconductor industry by shrinking planar transistors further and further; until 2011, when Intel announced its microprocessor “Ivy Bridge”. This was the first microprocessor in which the planar transistors were replaced by three-dimensional finFET transistors. And now, it is expected that so called gate-all-around (GAA) transistors will be introduced to follow Moore’s law in the future.
The patent classifications confirm this first impression: The five most frequent CPC classifications relate to finFET and gate-all-around transistor technologies. Eventually, a quick screening shows that 10 patent families are about to gate-all-around transistors and 3 families relate to finFET transistors. On its face value, the described structures and methods even resemble gate-all-around structures which are published in the literature.
This finding was not expected: Sony’s is not known to be active in advanced CMOS transistor technologies like GAA, or at least not obviously known.
The gate-all-around (GAA) transistor patent landscape
To put this finding into its context, we review the gate-all-around (GAA) transistor technology field.
The chart shows the Portfolio Size (left) and the Patent Asset Index ,a proprietary measure for portfolio strength, for the top six patent owners ranked by its portfolio strength. The top three patent owners Samsung, TSMC, and Intel are no surprise because all three are well-known semiconductor device manufactures that which are engaged in advanced transistor technologies.
IBM ranks fourth with its GAA portfolio strength despite that IBM has the largest portfolio size. Finding IBM among the top gate-all-around patent owners, to a certain extent, is a surprise as well: In 2015, IBM sold IBM Microelectronics to Global Foundries, along with more than reported 16,000 patent rights. This transfer has been considered in this analysis by using PatentSight® Ultimate Owner concept. According to this concept, in the PatentSight database, the patents which were acquired by GlobalFoundries in 2015 are reassigned from IBM to GlobalFoundries since the time the acquisition was finalized. These patents are found under the Owner “GlobalFoundries”, and not under the Owner “IBM”. It is safe to assume that there were gate-all-around (GAA) transistor patents among the 16,000 patent rights GlobalFoundries received in 2015.
Sony’s rank is sixth with a small but strong GAA portfolio. The difference between the portfolio size (number of simple patent families) and the portfolio strength (Patent Asset Index) is remarkable: The portfolio strength is more than 10-times larger than the Portfolio Size. This ratio demonstrates the high average quality, measured by the PatentSight Competitive Impact, of Sony’s gate-all-around patents, as the Patent Asset Index is the product of Competitive Impact and Portfolio Size.
Portfolio size and Patent Asset Index trends
The Portfolio Size and Patent Asset Index trend charts show the size and the strength of the GAA patents for the six patent owners. For the trend charts please recall, that GAA patents form IBM, which were sold to GlobalFoundries in 2015, are all found under GlobalFoundries in the trend charts. In turn, this means that despite selling IBM Microelectronics, IBM was and is still active in filing GAA transistor patents. Another surprise.
The difference between the Portfolio Size and the Patent Asset Index is also clearly visible in the trend charts. Even if IBM has the highest Portfolio Size growth rate, its Patent Asset Index does not keep up with the top three patent owners due to the average patent quality (Competitive Impact) of the IBM patents.
The Quality versus Quantity chart combines the Portfolio Size, portfolio strength (Patent Asset Index), and average patent quality (Competitive Impact). Sony’s small Portfolio Size and high average patent quality puts Sony into the top left corner of the chart. The bubble size represents the portfolio strength (Patent Asset Index). The IBM GAA portfolio appears to contrast with the Sony: IBM has the largest Portfolio Size, but it has the lowest average patent quality (Competitive Impact). The other four patent owners Samsung, TSMC, Intel, and GlobalFoundries are grouped together with similar Portfolio Sizes and Competitive Index values.
This brief analysis, of a rather small patent transfer between Sony and Intel, returns very valuable insights into the intellectual property (IP) of advanced CMOS transistor technology. First, Sony owns a small but strong gate-all-around transistor portfolio. This was not expected in the first place. Second, despite selling IBM Microelectronics years ago, IBM still files GAA transistor patents. This too is quiet a surprising behavior.
Nonetheless, two questions remain open: firstly, was Sony interested in the GAA patents in the first place, or were these patents only coincidentally in the portfolio? And second, yet maybe the more interesting question: Do the sold GAA patents tell something about what Intel will not do in the future?
See how to use the PatentSight for patent portfolio benchmarking.