It is well known that not all innovations are patented, but the exact volume of innovative activities undertaken outside the coverage of patent protection and, relatedly, the actual propensity to patent an innovation in different contexts remain, to a major degree, a matter of speculation. This paper presents an exploratory study comparing systematically patented and unpatented innovations over the period 1977–2004 across industrial sectors. The main data source is the ‘R&D 100 Awards’ competition organized by the journal Research and Development. Since 1963, the magazine has been awarding this prize to the 100 most technologically significant new products available for sale or licensing in the year preceding the judgments. We match the products winners of the R&D 100 awards competition with USPTO patents and we examine the variation of patent propensity across different contexts (industries, geographical areas and organizations). Finally we compare our findings with previous assessments of patent propensity based on several sources of data.