Bold, hybrid and bioelectric: protecting ideas in the future of medicine


Duncan White, Partner at Marks & Clerk explains why fast-changing technology is challenging IP

The application of electronics to the treatment of health conditions is nothing new. For years pacemakers have been used for the treatment of irregular heartbeats and other cardiovascular conditions. But now, pioneering engineering and new technologies are opening up whole areas to bioelectronic solutions thus making bioelectronic medicine a real possibility. Researchers in Washington, for example, have been working on implantable and biodegradable electronic devices that can stimulate nerve regeneration.

Likewise, transistors are being developed that can interact with human skin to monitor signals given off by the body – a technology with obvious applications in the treatment of conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension. It is for these reasons that the World Economic Forum has named bioelectronics as a technology that is likely to shape the future of medicine and healthcare.

It’s no surprise then that with sophisticated electronic devices being applicable to an increasing range of health conditions, the bioelectronics market is expected to grow substantially in coming decades, with a recent report suggesting the market could grow to $60 billion by the year 2029. Conditions such as type 2 diabetes which requires close and regular measurement of blood sugar levels and cardiovascular conditions which also need regular monitoring are expected to drive demand in this market, with analysts forecasting double digit market growth over coming years.

Protecting innovation

For innovators in this market, and for patients, there is a huge amount to play for. With substantial investments being made in research, development and gaining regulatory approval – it is vital that innovation in this market can be protected and, where innovation can be protected with patents, it should be.

As such it’s crucial that innovators understand just how they can protect the investment made in bringing new products to market. Patents will be key to securing initial protection on new inventions and devices. Beyond this however, design rights might be used to protect a novel design for an insulin delivery mechanism for example, and trademarks can be used to protect the good reputation and name of a device in a crowded marketplace.

Bioelectronics is also a hybrid technology, straddling as it does technologies ranging from electronics to biotech. This will present challenges when it comes to defining a clear place in the market – but will also mean a lack of prior art (evidence that an innovation has already been invented or discovered) to contend with for pioneers. This in turn means that truly novel, and patented, technology in this area could present innovators with the opportunity to ring-fence a section of the emerging bioelectronics market, and license that technology to the rest of the market – leading to potentially significant returns on initial R&D spend.

Other emerging markets which use hybrid technology show what can be achieved by combining technologies to deliver ever more innovative solutions. General Motors, for example, recently filed a patent for technology which can be retrofitted to vehicles to make them self-driving, meaning the new technology will need to be able to integrate with existing automotive technology. This is a bold move that creates a whole new market and no-doubt similar opportunities will emerge in the bioelectronics field.

How big is the market at present?

The hybrid nature of bioelectronics means that drawing conclusions about the volume of patent filing going on in this market isn’t easy.

Medical technology continues to be the largest single patent filing category at the European Patent Office however, and some of this is likely to be accounted for by bioelectronics. The EPO’s latest annual report reveals that filings in the medtech category grew 5 per cent in 2018. Likewise, filings in the categories of measurement, biotechnology, electrical machinery and analysis of biological materials also grew.

While not conclusive, these figures could point towards growth in the bioelectronics market already occurring.

Duncan White

Patent challenges

While presenting potential licensing opportunities, the hybrid nature of bioelectronic technology also presents challenges both to start-ups and more established companies who may be looking to break into this market. Central to these challenges will be developing the in-house expertise needed to successfully compete in this market and finding the engineers who are as comfortable with circuitry as they are with chronic illness.

As the bioelectronics market grows, no doubt so too will the pool of individuals and firms specialising in electronic healthcare solutions. In the meantime, however, great care will need to be taken to ensure that pioneering technologies developed in this space are adequately protected and commercialised.

For start-ups and emerging businesses also, robust intellectual property protection on novel devices and inventions will be essential when it comes to raising finance for further business expansion. Intellectual property gives potential investors the assurance that what they are investing in is adequately protected, it also gives businesses a firm basis on which to begin seeking regulatory approval for their innovations.

New technologies such as AI and 3D printing are leading to enormous innovation in healthcare – with technological solutions being found for health challenges ranging from better diagnostics which can reduce over-prescription of antibiotics to the emergence of sophisticated algorithms that can replicate a human pancreas. Increasingly sophisticated techniques in genetics are also opening up new realms of possibility in the field of bioelectronics, as well as in a range of other areas, and innovators will have to carefully navigate some of the complexities in this area such as the ongoing debate around the patentability or not of seeds and plant varieties.

When it comes to both AI and biotech, the law is racing to catch up with innovation. While this can lead to a degree of uncertainty, it also gives product developers in these markets the opportunity to shape a sector that will continue to grow in importance in coming years and decades.

The emerging field of bioelectronics will have a huge role to play here and has the potential to lead to ground-breaking new treatments and the creation of world beating enterprises. Protecting this innovation with intellectual property will be key as this industry grows and begins deploying its technology to meet health challenges globally.

About the author

The Economist online offers authoritative insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science and technology.

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