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Patent applications from China and South Korea surged at the European Patent Office (EPO) during 2020 as US and UK filings decreased, according to a new report.
The EPO's Patent Index for 2020, released yesterday, March 16, revealed that the office received 180,250 patent applications, a decrease of 7% on the record level attained in 2019 (181,532). The top five countries submitting patent applications in 2020 were the US (44, 293 applications), followed by Germany (25,954), Japan (21,841), China (13,432) and France (10,554).
According to the index, the largest increases among the top 10 countries came from Chinese (9.9%) and South Korean (9.2%) applicants, with Chinese firms filing more applications in fields such as biotechnology.
“The EPO's Patent Index for 2020 shows that demand for patent protection has remained high,” said EPO president António Campinos.
“Overall, patenting activity has been robust, even though it fluctuated across technology sectors and economic regions. While this is a conclusive set of results for the year, it is far from presenting a complete picture of the longer-term effects of the pandemic.”
Fall in US, UK patenting activity
US patent applicants, who account for a quarter of all applications at the EPO, filed 4% fewer applications in 2020, dropping significantly in the areas of transport, electrical machinery/apparatus/energy and organic fine chemistry.
Patent applications originating in the UK fell by nearly 7% from 6,129 in 2019 to 5,715 applications.
Unilever was the top UK filer; filing 528 patent applications at the EPO in 2020. Rolls Royce was in second place, filing 299 patent applications. Other top UK filers included Advanced New Technologies (282 filings), Linde (182 filings) and BAE Systems (159 filings).
“The UK has retained a 3% share of the total number of patent applications received by the EPO in 2019/20, which is largely the same as in the previous year,” said Karl Barnfather, chairman at Withers & Rogers.
He added: “The UK’s excellence in computer and telecoms tech, as well as software innovation, is also globally recognised and activity levels over the past year have been on a par with those we have seen in other global innovation centres. This suggests the slowdown in patent filing activity seen at the EPO this year, is not likely to continue.”
Digital communication (which includes technologies enabling 5G networks) and computer technology (including AI-related inventions), performed well in the annual index, growing respectively by 1% to 14,122 applications and by nearly 2% to 13,097 applications in 2020.
Transport showed the largest drop (down 5.5% to 9,020 applications), especially in the sub-fields of aviation and aerospace (down 24.7%), and to a lesser extent automotive (down 1.6%).
According to Emily Hayes, partner in the life sciences department at Mewburn Ellis, the decline in filings in the transport space had been influenced by the pandemic. “Although US-based applicants are still by far the biggest filer of applications, it seems likely that the relative decrease in applications from US applicants is a direct result of the pandemic, especially given the significant decrease in US-originating applications in the transport sector,” she said.
“Conversely, there has been a significant increase in applications from China and South Korea, reflecting the keen interest in clean energy technologies in these countries, as well as China’s increased focus on biotechnology,” she added.
Effect of COVID-19
Healthcare innovation led patenting activity in 2020 as COVID-19 fuelled a rise in applications, the report confirmed.
The medical technology sector grew by nearly 3% and accounted for the most inventions in 2020, taking the top spot held by digital communication in 2019.
Among the leading technical fields, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology showed the biggest increases in terms of patent filings, growing by 10% and 6% respectively.
Companies and inventors from the EPO’s 38 member states filed more than 81,000 European patent applications last year, down by 1.3% due to fewer filings in fields such as measurement, including sensor technologies, (down 10%), organic fine chemistry (down 3%) and electrical machinery/apparatus/energy (down 3%).
However, applicants from the EPO states posted significant growth in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, which increased by 15% and 5% respectively.
Ed White, head of analytics in the IP Group at Clarivate, explained that the effect of the pandemic on patenting activity was clear.
“Wellbeing-related technology produced by the pharmaceutical, medical tech and biotech sectors, showed notable increases in patent filing activity. It will be intriguing to see if this is a one-time bump for 2020, or whether it will be sustained into 2021, 2022 and beyond.”
He pointed out that while European patent filing was stable year over year, with just a 7% decrease compared to 2019, the previous year’s 4% increase in activity had stalled.
“It may well be that COVID-19 has generated a dip in US and European filing activity overall, but our research has clearly pointed to a ‘flight to selectivity’,” said White.
He added: “Volume is no longer as important compared to protecting the right inventions at the right protection level, and therefore achieving the same outcomes and value with the same or fewer resources.”
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China, South Korea, US, COVID-19, EPO, patents, innovation, biotechnology, medical technology