Powerful new patent service shows every US invention, and a new view of R&D relationships

The website for the U.S. Patent Office website is famously clunky: searching and sorting patents can feel like playing an old Atari game, rather than watching innovation at work. But now a young inventor has come along with a tool to build a better patent office.
The service is called Trea, and was launched by Max Yuan, an engineer who received a patent of his own for a bike motor in 2007. After writing a tool to download patents related to his own invention, he expanded the process to slurp every patent and image in the USPTO database, and compile the information in a user-friendly interface.
Trea has been in beta for a while, but will formally launch on Wednesday. The tool not only provides an easy way to see what inventions a company or inventor is patenting, but also shows the fields in which they are most active. Here is a screenshot from Trea that shows what Apple(s aapl) has been up to in the last 12 months:
Trea screenshot of Apple inventions
Such information could be valuable to investors or to companies that want to use the filings as a way to track what might be in their competitors’ product pipelines. The Trea database also probes the USPTO for new filings, and can send alerts to subscribers. Yuan has also created a Twitter account just for new Apple filings.
Trea also draws on the patent database to display what Yuan calls a “unified knowledge graph” of relationships between inventors. Pictures, like the one below for IBM, show clusters of inventors and, at a broader level, the viral transmission of human ideas within a company:
Trea IBM screenshot
Here is another look at Trea’s knowledge graph in action, this time in relation to a single inventor. This screenshot shows who Scott Forstall, a former software engineer at Apple, collaborated with most frequently:
Scott Forstall patent partners
This type of information, gleaned from patent filings, could be valuable to corporate strategists, or to journalists, scholars or business historians. And making government websites more user-friendly, as Rankandfiled.com is attempting to do with Securities and Exchange Commission filings, can certainly help people understand what their regulators are doing.
I asked Yuan what he plans to do with all this, and he said that Trea’s business model will charge a fee for alerts and analytics tools. Others parts of Trea, which is backed in part by Nathan Richardson, a former executive at Yahoo and AOL, will remain free.
The free tools will include a “notary feature,” which allows inventors to secretly submit diagrams and ideas, and receive a time-stamp of when they did so. The feature does not require the inventor to disclose the content of the idea, but is instead a cryptographic tool — in order to “unlock” the notarized submission, the inventor must provide the same digital document to authenticate that they were the one who submitted it in the first place.
Yuan said that the notary feature can be used for “defensive publishing,” meaning someone facing a patent lawsuit could defeat the claim by showing the notarized documents as evidence they had come up with the idea independently. He added that this tool could also be a way for news outlets and the broader internet community to verify the provenance of documents and web pages.
As for the U.S. Patent Office, Yuan said that officials there have been supportive of his project — and were not even annoyed that his massive downloading efforts crashed the USPTO servers on several occasions.
Yuan says the notary feature can be used for “defensive publishing”; an earlier version of this story incorrectly said “defensive patenting.”