Journal of Data and Information Science ›› 2023, Vol. 8 ›› Issue (1): 47-71.doi: 10.2478/jdis-2023-0002

• Research Paper • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Identifying grey-rhino in eminent technologies via patent analysis

Shelia X. Wei1,2,(), Helena H. Zhang3, Howell Y. Wang1,2, Fred Y. Ye1,2,()   

  1. 1School of Information Management, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023, China
    2International Joint Informatics Laboratory, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023, China
    3School of Cultural Heritage and Information Management, Shanghai University, Shanghai 200444, China
  • Received:2022-08-28 Revised:2022-11-15 Accepted:2022-12-22 Online:2023-02-20 Published:2023-02-22
  • Contact: Shelia X. Wei (Email:; Fred Y. Ye (Email:


Purpose: Following the typical features of the grey-rhino event as predictability and profound influence, we attempt to find a special pattern called the grey-rhino in eminent technologies via patent analysis.

Design/methodology/approach: We propose to combine triadic patent families and technology life cycle to define the grey-rhino model. Firstly, we design the indicator rhino-index Rh= ST/SP and descriptor sequence {Rh}, where ST and SP are the accumulative number of triadic patent families and all patent families respectively for a specific technology. Secondly, according to the two typical features of the grey-rhino event, a grey-rhino is defined as a technology that meets both qualitative and quantitative conditions. Qualitatively, this technology has a profound influence. Quantitatively, in the emerging stage, Rh ≥ Rae, where Rae is the average level of the proportion of triadic patent families. Finally, this model is verified in three datasets, namely Encyclopedia Britannica's list for the greatest inventions (EB technologies for short), MIT breakthrough technologies (MIT technologies) and Derwent Manual Code technologies (MAN technologies).

Findings: The result shows that there are 64.71% EB technologies and 50.00% MIT technologies meeting the quantitative standard of the grey-rhino model, but only 14.71% MAN technologies fit the quantitative standard. This falling trend indicates the quantitative standard of the grey-rhino model is reasonable. EB technologies and MIT technologies have profound influence on society, which means they satisfy the qualitative standard of the grey-rhino model. Hence, 64.71% EB technologies and 50.00% MIT technologies are grey-rhinos. In 14.71% MAN technologies meeting the quantitative standard, we make some qualitative judgments and deem U11-A01A, U12-A01A1A, and W01-A01A as grey-rhino technologies. In addition, grey-rhinos and non-grey-rhinos have some differences. Rh values of grey-rhinos have a downward trend, while Rh values of non-grey-rhinos have a contrary trend. Rh values of grey-rhinos are scattered relatively in the early stage and centralize gradually, but non-grey-rhinos do not have this feature.

Research limitations: There are four main limitations. First, if a technology satisfies the quantitative standard of the model, it is likely to be a grey-rhino but expert judgments are necessary. Second, we don't know why it will be eminent, which involves technical contents. Thirdly, we did not consider the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) and the German Patent and Trademark Office (DPMA) which also play important roles in worldwide patents, so we hope to expand our study to the CNIPA and the DPMA. Furthermore, we did not compare the rhino-index with other patent indicators.

Practical implications: If a technology meets the quantitative standard, this can be seen as early warning signals and the technology may become a grey-rhino in the future, which can catch people's attention in the emerging stage and make people seize the technical opportunity early.

Originality/value: We define and verify a new pattern called the grey-rhino model in eminent technologies.

Key words: Grey-rhino, Eminent Technologies, Triadic Patent Families, Technology Life Cycle