Japan and the United States lead a small group of nations that are driving innovation in 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics, three frontier technologies that hold the potential to boost future economic growth, according to a new report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

“Historical technological breakthroughs have been at the root of long-lasting expansions in economic output,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry in a press release.

“Successful innovation, at the company level or across the wider economy, requires perseverance, particularly in periods of anaemic growth when innovation budgets are under pressure,” he continued. “We need to reinforce the environments that give rise to the breakthrough technologies of tomorrow.”

Amid lacklustre worldwide economic growth, the report, World Intellectual Property Report 2015: Breakthrough Innovation and Economic Growth, shows how previous game-changing advancements – such as airplanes, antibiotics and semiconductors – sparked new business activity. It also probes today’s promising breakthrough innovations, while urging governments and business to step up innovation-related investment.

Relying on an original mapping of patents to fields of innovation, the report finds that Japan, the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea accounted for 75 per cent or more of all-time patent filings in the areas of 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics.

Meanwhile, China is the only emerging middle-income country moving closer to this group of advanced, industrialized nations, accounting for more than a quarter of patents worldwide in the area of 3D printing and robotics – the highest share among all countries. In the case of nanotechnology, Chinese applicants make up close to 15 per cent of filings worldwide – the third largest origin of patents.

Furthermore, the report underlines the elements of successful innovation ecosystems: government funding for scientific research and support in moving promising technology from the laboratory to the production stage; competitive market forces that encourage firms to innovate, supported by vibrant financial markets and sound regulation; and fluid linkages between public and private innovation actors.

The report also documents how innovation is increasingly linked to research at universities and public research organizations. The 3D printing, nanotechnology, and robotics fields show higher shares of academic patenting compared to the three historical cases of airplanes, antibiotics and semiconductors. Nanotechnology stands out, with academic applicants accounting for around a quarter of patenting worldwide.

In addition, the case studies also document how innovation flourished as a result of knowledge sharing mechanisms – from the first clubs of amateur airplane inventors to modern open innovation models found in 3D printing and robotics research. By encouraging disclosure and providing a flexible tool for licensing, the IP system has facilitated the sharing of knowledge.

The patent mappings carried out also show that innovators have overwhelmingly sought patent protection for their inventions in high-income countries plus China, reflecting the large size of these countries’ markets, as well as the presence of competitors with frontier technological capabilities.

WIPO is underlining that the report’s case studies on 3D printing, nanotechnology, and robotics conclude that the large number of patent filings in these innovation fields have yet to result in increased litigation over patents and other friction over IP rights. However, as many of the underlying technologies are still at a relatively early stage of development and have yet to see any commercialization, conflicts surrounding IP rights may well increase in the future.

Meanwhile, copyright is becoming more visible and relevant for technological innovation: first with the inclusion of software as copyrightable subject matter and in the protection of any kind of digital expression, including 3D object designs and the design of computer chips.

The World Intellectual Property Report is published every two years, with each edition focusing on specific trends in an area of IP. Previous reports have explored the role that brands play in a global marketplace and the changing face of innovation.