A dynamic approach for identifying technological breakthroughs with an application in solar photovoltaics

Bixuan Sun, Sergey Kolesnikov, Anna Goldstein, Gabriel Chan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


This paper presents a conceptual framework for understanding technological breakthroughs and a novel empirical approach for investigating potential breakthrough inventions in the patent record. We define technological breakthroughs as inventions that are initially novel to a technological field but become increasingly relevant for describing the development of the field over time. We operationalize these notions of novelty and relevance by applying topic modeling to a corpus of the full text of patents in a technological field. The identified topics define a “technological space,” from which we develop continuous measures of a patent's novelty and relevance to the mainstream trajectory of technological development in this space over time. Our method allows us to identify potential breakthrough inventions that may have driven changes to the rate and direction of technological development in the focal field. We apply the method to silicon solar photovoltaic patents granted in the United States between 1977 and 1996, generating a list of 98 patents representing potential breakthroughs that can be subsequently validated with other approaches. This method can help researchers identify sources and patterns of technological breakthroughs to inform research and development policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number120534
JournalTechnological Forecasting and Social Change
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research is supported by the grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation titled “What factors drive innovation in energy technologies? The role of technology spillovers and government investment.”

Funding Information:
Anna Goldstein is a Senior Research Fellow in Industrial Engineering at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research area is science and technology policy applied to clean energy innovation and climate change mitigation. She was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Carnegie Institution of Science, following a fellowship in the Science, Technology & Public Policy program through the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Anna received her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an emphasis in Nanoscale Science and Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, where she investigated nanomaterials for use in energy harvesting and storage applications.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020


  • Innovation
  • Solar photovoltaics
  • Technological breakthrough
  • Technological space
  • Technological trajectory
  • Topic modeling


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