European Patent Office

EPO Patent Index shows medical innovation driving patent applications

Today's EPO Patent Index 2020 highlights healthcare innovation as the biggest driver of European patent applications. The number of filed European patent applications has also remained relatively stable despite the events of 2020, seeing just a slight decrease. So far, the global coronavirus pandemic has not a huge impact on the patent sector. But trends in the report suggest its full effect remains to be seen.

16 March 2021 by Amy Sandys

EPO Patent Index The EPO has published its Patent Index 2020, highlighting the most important trends in global patent filing strategies and trends over the past year ©European Patent Office

Today, the European Patent Office has released its annual EPO Patent Index 2020. Given the tumultuous events of the past year, some patent attorneys in the European market expected a downturn in the number of filed patent applications and hearings before the EPO. However, the Patent Index 2020 indicates that the coronavirus pandemic has not had such a bad impact as first assumed. In fact, filed patent applications decreased by just 0.7% during 2020.

EPO Patent Index

In 2019, the EPO announced an amendment to its reporting cycle. The office now publishes its patent filing statistics annually every March as the Patent Index. However, in June the EPO will publish its operational results and development updates under its Strategic Plan. This was formerly known as the Annual Report.

EPO Patent Index fuelled by pharma

Today’s report shows that medical innovation continues to lead the technical fields for patent filing. For example, in 2020 medical technology dominated the number of filed inventions in terms of volume. It saw an increase in patent filings by 2.6%.

This is closely followed by inventions in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, which show the biggest increase in terms of patent filing. Both came in at 10.2% and 6.3% respectively.

Medical technology leading the field in patent filing is a change from 2019. In the previous year, mobile communication dominated the technical fields of patent filing. Regardless, mobile communication and computer technology remain strong fields among their competitors. Over 2020, both grew by 1.0% and 1.9% respectively.

Furthermore, the overall number of European patent applications filed by parties in 2020 in all fields is almost equal to the 2019 total. During 2020, the EPO received a total of 18,0250 patent applications – just 0.7% below the 18,1532 patent applications filed in 2019.

EPO Patent Index

On the other hand, although EPO member state applicants increased their patent applications in pharmaceuticals and biotech by 15% and 4.5% respectively, overall the 38 EPO member states filed 1.3% fewer European patent applications. As such, in 2020 parties filed a total of 81,000 patent applications. This is compared with 82,493 in 2019.

Patent applications regarding transport saw the largest decrease at -5.5%. Aviation and aerospace are mostly behind this slump, which saw a decrease in patent applications by -24.7%. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the economic impact of the pandemic on the aerospace sector.

The automotive sub-category also saw a decrease, albeit less sharply, of -1.6%. As such, this year’s EPO Patent Index indicates the categories which have most benefitted – and suffered – from a global crisis driven by a viral infection.

Focus on geography

Regarding the geographic origins of patent applications, the top five countries remain the same as in 2019. The US leads the pack again with 44,293 applications. However, interestingly US patent applicants actually filed 4.1% fewer applications at the EPO than in 2019.

EPO Patent IndexSecond is Germany with 25,954 patent applications; in third place is Japan, with 21,841. China and France are fourth and fifth, with 13,432 and 10,554 respectively. Again, as in 2019, China and South Korea showed the strongest increases in patent applications in the top ten countries. Both countries recorded rates of increase of 9.9% and 9.2% respectively.

Chinese firms filed more applications in, for example, biotechnology, electrical machinery, apparatus, and energy, highlighting its lead for clean energy technology inventions.

South Korean companies were especially active in electrical machinery, telecommunications, computer technology and semiconductors. In terms of companies with the highest number of patent applications, this year Samsung leads the pack.

The South Korea-based electronics giant filed 3,276 applications, followed by last year’s leader Huawei with 2,858. The EPO Patent Index puts LG in third place, with 2,817 patent applications.

On the other hand, patent applications from Japanese companies and inventors also dropped by 1.1% from 2019. Here, patent applications in the transport and optics sector took the biggest hit.

Indeed, Sony is the only Japanese company to make it into the Top 10 applicants at the EPO, coming in eighth.

Patent Index for future roadmap

Regarding the EPO Patent Index 2020, EPO president António Campinos says, “The EPO’s Patent Index 2020 shows that demand for patent protection has remained high. 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. Those, I’m sure, are yet to be seen.”

António Campinos, EPO Patent Index

António Campinos

Campinos continues, “Although we can’t predict with any certainty the patent trends that will emerge in the coming months or years, we do know that it is innovation, research and science that will lead to a healthier world, and to stronger and more sustainable economies. Because innovation, supported by a strong IP system, is the motor of recovery, in every sense of the word.”

As such, the European patent market has likely not yet felt the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the EPO Patent Index 2020 shows early signs of future trends. For example, the noteworthy decrease in patent applications filed in the aerospace sector reflects the wider societal change.

Pandemic impact on patent

On a general level, the pandemic may well change future travel patterns – not least due to expansion of telecommunications and home office optimisation. A boom in video conferencing and telecommunications reflects the latter trend.

Furthermore, the various trend in pharmaceuticals is telling. Success over 2020 relied on the repurposing of existing medical technology, as well as rapid innovation of new methods. And the global patent market reacted rapidly. Finally, at least in some countries, an end to the pandemic is beginning to emerge.

But the challenges and opportunities presented by 2020 are likely contribute to a different patent world map in the future.