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And now for some good news… medtech remained the strongest sector for European patent filings last year



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Thomas Prock, UK, German and European Patent Attorney at Marks & Clerk reviews the European Patent Office’s (EPO) annual report

medtech patents

Last month the European Patent Office (EPO) released its annual report detailing the number of European Patent filings in 2016. And straight away we can see that the medical technology industry continues to lead other fields in terms of commercialisation. The sector remained firmly at the top of the patent protection rankings throughout 2016.

While we did witness an overall 2.1 per cent decrease in the number of patent applications for medtech last year, it’s important to remember that 2015 was a record year that saw 12,531 applications, so it is unlikely that the sector will lose its lead over other technology fields. Digital communication had the second most European patent filings at 10,915 and computer technology came in third at 10,657, so medtech is still well ahead.

In terms of measuring against other technologies, medtech beat big players digital communication, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Medtech has been leading the technology industry since 2007, when it first overtook computer technology in terms of the most applications filed.

Within healthcare-related technologies, the difference in patent filing levels has increased almost year-on-year throughout the last decade, yet figure 1 (below) shows that medical technology has far outrun other fields such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

The above table shows an average increase of about four per cent per annum in the number of patent filings relating to medical technology over the past ten years. The noticeable spike in 2010 and subsequent trough across all healthcare-related technologies is the likely result of a notable change in the patent rules, which has now been retracted.

The American question

The majority of the European patent applications filed in 2016 in the medical devices field – 41 per cent – originated from within Europe (5,023 filings), while 38 per cent (4,606) originated in the USA. The US healthcare market is renowned globally for its high levels of R&D. The number of European patent applications owned by US companies is very similar to the number of European patent application owned by European companies. Pair this with the fact that applicants will protect their inventions in their domestic market first before seeking patent protection further afield only emphasises this point. This suggests that medical technology activity, development activity and research in the USA is far more intense than in Europe. We expect that this would be confirmed by an analysis of the number of patents filed in the US by US and European companies respectively.

The state of application in 2015

In 2015, more patent applications (12,474) were filed for medical devices than for any other type of technology. We look at figures from the European Patent Office to identify upcoming trends in medtech innovation

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Whilst three of the top ten applicants in the medical devices field are from Europe (Phillips in 1st position, Sanofi 6th and Fresenius 9th), half of the ten top applicants are from the USA (Medtronic 2nd, Johnson & Johnson 3rd, Boston Scientific 5th, Procter & Gamble 7th and Becton Dickinson 10th).

Worldwide figures

Other countries contributing significantly to the number of medical device applications filed in Europe are Japan (responsible for nine per cent of filings, with Olympus being the 4th most prolific individual filer) and South Korea (responsible for two per cent of all filings with Samsung at the top). China has contributed one per cent of all European patent filings in the medical devices field. Although the amount of filings from each of these markets has generally grown over the last 10 years, other than the USA and Europe which have jostled for the top spot for some time now, the overall order of top filing countries has not shown much change. Last year, the USA lost the top spot it had achieved by 17 per cent growth in numbers from 2014 and 2015. In 2016, US filing numbers fell closer to 2014 levels.

Within Europe, companies and other applicants from Germany have filed more applications than those from any other country consistently over the last 10 years. Companies from the Netherlands filed the second most patents. However, almost 90 per cent of Dutch applications came from the top filer, Philips. Switzerland, France and the UK round out the top five companies.

The individual technologies that contribute to the medtech category, as defined by the EPO (and the World Intellectual Property Organisation), include compounds and dressings, physical therapy apparatus, hardware for preparation and administration of pharmaceuticals, chemical treatment, therapy with electromagnetic waves, dentistry, veterinary medicine and general diagnosis and surgery. Although the EPO does not publish up-to-date statistics on application levels for each of these individual technology areas, a review of published applications since 2003 suggests that a significant number of filings in this area relate to implants and associated devices and methods for introducing such devices into the human body. Another significant area is methods, apparatus and chemical treatments for sterilisation or disinfection.

European patents will continue to prove vital to the various UK technology industries as we continue to commercialise our R&D post Brexit. European patents are not EU instruments, but instead are subject on a non-EU treaty. After the UK leaves the EU, UK applicants will continue to file European patent applications, and applicants from around the world will continue to secure patent protection in the UK through the European patent system.

About the author

Thomas Prock is a qualified Chartered (UK), German and European Patent Attorney in the high tech field, in particular, in the electronics sector on internet related subject matter and computer-implemented inventions. He has worked on patent applications relating to non-volatile semiconductor storage devices, data processing and exchange, mobile telecommunications, smart grid related inventions, waste reduction and medical imaging, to name a few.

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