Increasing Demand and Patent Applications for Medical Technology

Medical technology continues to lead other fields in terms of commercialization, as medical technology innovators remained at the top of the European Patent Office's patent protection rankings last year. 

Thomas Prock

The recent publication of the European Patent Office’s Annual Report shows that medical technology continues to lead other fields in terms of commercialization, as medical technology innovators remained at the top of the patent protection rankings last year. In 2016, more European patent applications were filed for medical technology than for any other type of technology, including digital communication, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. Medical technology has led the pack since 2007, when it first overtook computer technology as the field with most applications filed.

Although the overall number of European patent applications for medical technology declined last year by 2.1 percent to 12,263 from a record 12,531 in 2015, it is unlikely to lose its lead over other technology fields. Digital communication had the second most European patent filings at 10,915 and computer technology had the third most European patent filings at 10,657.

The difference in patent filing levels between different healthcare-related technologies has widened almost every year over the last decade, with medical technology far outpacing biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Figure 1 shows the trend of European patent applications filed in the healthcare-related technologies from around the globe.

The figure shows an average increase of about 4 percent per year in the number of patent filings relating to medical technology over the past ten years. (The spike in 2010 and subsequent trough are likely a result of a change in the patent rules, which has since been reversed.)

Of the European patent applications filed in 2016 in the medical devices field, 41 percent originated from within Europe (5023 applications). Another 38 per cent (4606) originated in the United States. These data suggest that medical technology activity research and development activity in the United States is more intense than in Europe because applicants tend to protect their inventions in their domestic market before seeking patent protection abroad. The fact that  there were only slightly fewer applications from U.S. organizations than from European ones is telling.

While three of the top ten applicants in the medical devices field are from Europe (Philips in the top position, Sanofi in the sixth slot, and Fresenius at ninth), half of the ten top applicants have their main operations in the United States (Medtronic (second), Johnson & Johnson (third), Boston Scientific (fifth), Procter & Gamble (seventh), and Becton Dickinson (tenth)). The U.S. healthcare market is renowned for its high levels of research and development. Other countries contributing significantly to the number of medical device applications filed in Europe are Japan (responsible for nine percent of filings, with Olympus being the fourth most prolific individual filer), and South Korea (responsible for two percent of all filings with Samsung being the top filer). China has contributed one percent 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, the order of top filing countries has not shown much change,  other than the United States and Europe, which have jostled for the top spot for some time. The United States lost its top spot from last year, which was made possible by 17 percent growth in the number of filings from 2014 and 2015. In 2016, filing numbers decreased to near 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 number of patents. However, almost 90 percent of Dutch applications came from the top filer, Philips. Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom round out the top five.

The individual technologies that contribute to the medical technology 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 sterilization or disinfection.

Although these statistics represent filings across the whole year, there has been little sign of a slow-down from U.K. applicants looking for European patent protection. It is unlikely that the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will significantly reduce the number of European patent applications from U.K. applicants.

The European Patent Office (which examines and grants European patents) is not an E.U. institution, but is instead based on a non-E.U. multilateral agreement, known as the European Patent Convention, which includes countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and Albania. So, post-Brexit, applicants will still be able to secure protection in the United Kingdom through the European patent system, whether they are based in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

Thomas Prock, partner at Marks & Clerk in London, is a Chartered (UK), German, and European patent attorney.

[Charts courtesy of THOMAS PROCK. Image courtesy of STUART MILES/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET]

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