The data shows an overall decrease in filings of 0.7%, which at first glance appears commensurate with recent year on year variations. However, this number conceals significant shifts within the sources of these filings. Compared to 2019, China and Korea have increased EPO filings by roughly 10% each, while the numbers for the top filing EPO member states varied from -8% in the Netherlands to +11% in Sweden.
The seemingly insignificant 0.7% overall decrease in filings therefore belies the possible economic ramifications in sectors with depleted filings, such as the most depleted sector of transport. However, the feeling is that innovation will return to its pre-pandemic levels and continue to meet the challenges faced by society on an ongoing basis.
As might be expected, healthcare innovation took centre stage. Medical technology was the leading field for inventions, with pharmaceuticals and biotechnology being the fastest growing areas. Medical technology took the spot for most filings in 2020 from digital communication in 2019, which still remained strong in 2020.
The biggest overall filing countries in 2020 were the US, Germany, Japan, China and France. The US accounted for a quarter of all filings but was down -4%, China was up 10%, South Korea up 9% and Japan was down -1%. The overall filers refers to all patent applications in all classes of technology. In contrast, this article looks at types of inventions related to healthcare only.
Filings by EPO member states were down by -1 %, with hidden statistics showing -10% in sensor technologies and +15% in pharmaceuticals. Again the seeming constancy of the big picture conceals changes within the filing statistics for the member states. The Netherlands had an overall decrease in filings of 8% but comes in at no. 4 in medical technology. Belgium features at number 8 in the ranking according to number of applications per population.
As healthcare innovation was so strong we will look at not the overall rankings, but rankings within three healthcare related sectors: pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical technology. A spectacular growth took place in the top ten filers of these three mentioned healthcare sectors. Filings from China in medical technology grew 35% and in biotechnology grew 75%; filings from Denmark in pharmaceuticals grew 42%; and South Korea also showed a substantial growth of 31% in biotechnology.
Clearly, companies focused their work on healthcare innovation, which led to increased numbers of patent filings. Medical technology filings increased by 3%, pharmaceutical by 10%, and biotechnology by 6%. The top 5 filing countries for pharmaceuticals and biotechnology were the same list in different orders of US, Germany, France, Switzerland and Japan. Medical technology differs only by the Netherlands bumping Switzerland out of the top 5 to number 6.
If we look at the statistics of these countries, we begin to see where else these top healthcare filing economies are directing their investment and interests.
In the US, the top 5 technical fields with the biggest numbers of filings in 2020 were, in order: medical technology, computer technology, digital communication, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
In Germany the top 5 technical fields with the biggest numbers of filings in 2020 were, in order: electrical machinery/energy; transport; measurement; other special machines; medical technology.
In France the top 5 technical fields with the biggest numbers of filings in 2020 were, in order: transport; medical technology; electrical machinery/energy; computer technology; and pharmaceuticals.
In Japan the top 5 technical fields with the biggest numbers of filings in 2020 were, in order: electrical machinery/energy; transport; digital communication; computer technology; and measurement- with medical technology at number 6.
These statistics reveal that other industries besides healthcare are still very active in all of these top filer countries. It is interesting to note that transport remains at the top in France, despite the lockdowns, while digital communication – made ever more popular by the lockdowns – is still strong in Japan and the US.
The prevalence of electrical machinery and energy in Germany, France and Japan may also be benefited by the challenges of sudden altered demands on national energy grids with populations working from home. The need for automobile fuel dropped and therefor biofuel production may have seen less demand. The climate remains a challenge and the effect of the pandemic is unclear but it seems highly likely that energy source industries were significantly impacted.
There is a relatively small number of filings in pharmaceuticals in comparison to medical devices. This may be surprising at first glance when considering the pervading news stories about vaccine development. In fact, medical devices has held the top spot in EPO filings since 2010, only outdone once since, in 2019, by digital communications.
If we consider the trend in recent years towards preventative medicine, this helps to explain why diagnostic machines and the likes can bolster the number of medical devices filings despite the undeniable importance of and many efforts invested into a COVID-19 vaccine. This is further explained by the fact that devices have a shorter route to market so there is more incentive to file for every iteration. Biotechnology also featured strongly in recent years, owing in large part to the success of gene editing and genetic predictive diagnostics.
The statistics in the field of pharmaceuticals provide a reminder that it is not only the large companies filing patents here. The fact is that 1% of the applicants accounted for half of all filings, perhaps because pharmaceutical development is so costly that large companies have the advantage. However, SME’s and public research organisations contributed 5% of all pharmaceutical filings in 2020.
The biotechnology statistics indicate an upcoming boom in filings from Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan, with very large growth rates of filings. Biotechnological inventions are particularly interesting because they can be used in any point along the path from diagnosis to treatment, including in research labs as research tools.
We have all seen the sources of the main trends in our daily lives like never before, as travel ground to a halt and we all waited and watched with baited breath the inventive activity in vaccines and ventilators. Many companies switched their productions into these areas to meet the demands for facemasks, sanitizer, ventilators and PPE. Innovators came out strong and while not on the front line, worked tirelessly to provide us with the tools to survive this pandemic.
Certainly this calls to attention the importance of not only the final product but also the manufacturing methods. One wonders if the demands of throughput during the pandemic could have translated into a higher than usual number of method claims. This would be interesting from a patent drafting perspective as these are often underappreciated or misunderstood in terms of their enforcement. In fact, method of manufacturing claims can have different legal consequences in different jurisdictions.
With the upped production of face masks and sanitizer, many companies paused their normal activities to chip in. These companies were in fields such as mechanical inventions, being amongst the technical fields showing fewer filings. Perhaps a known sacrifice of time, resources and engineers’ attentions was made, as per the evidence in the decreased filing numbers.
With a focus on vaccines in the news, there is perhaps not sufficient credit given to those inventing medical devices, and manufacturing schemes and every other contribution towards combating the global pandemic.
Overall, the biotech, pharma and medical devices sectors have compensated for the slowing in other sectors.