The emergence of new knowledge: The case of zero-reference patents

T Chen (First Author), C Kim (Participant Author), KA Miceli (Participant Author)

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal

4 Citations (Web of Science)


Knowledge-based theories have posited that new technologies are recombinations of prior technologies. To bring about new innovations, inventors usually use past known knowledge as a key ingredient. However, there exists a particular type of new technology that does not have any explicit prior technology predecessors. These pioneering technologies, also referred to as "zero-reference patents," not only reflect new knowledge but can also serve as the initial seed from which recombination can subsequently create more knowledge and technologies. We seek to understand the characteristics of the inventors who create these pioneering technologies. We find that having focused, specific expertise is more important than a broad knowledge base in the development of these pioneering technologies, and that prior inventive success can hinder their creation. We highlight a type of patents which have zero backward references, representing a form of pioneering knowledge. Unlike other types of knowledge, pioneering knowledge comes from inventors who have less successful but more focused experience. Although the zero-reference patents generally fail to show usefulness on their own, the patents which build upon zero-reference patents are more likely to become breakthrough patents and to generate a high number of forward citations. Zero-reference patents are the seeds for future breakthroughs. Given the importance of breakthroughs, we offer an alternative path toward creating such knowledge. Our analysis at the level of inventors also gives guidance on the type of talent who are more likely to generate pioneering knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-72
Number of pages24
JournalStrategic Entrepreneurship Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Corresponding author email


  • Innovation
  • Knowledge creation
  • Pioneering technology

Indexed by

  • ABDC-A
  • SSCI


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