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Statistics published today by the European Patent Office (EPO) show that innovation in healthcare drove patenting activity in 2020: Medical technology was the leading field for inventions in terms of volume, while pharmaceuticals and biotechnology were the fastest-growing areas.

Despite the pandemic, the overall number of European patent applications filed in 2020 was nearly on a par with the previous year’s, decreasing by 0.7 percent . The EPO received 180 250 patent applications in total last year, which was slightly below the record level attained in 2019 (181 532).

“The EPO’s Patent Index for 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. And 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,” said EPO President António Campinos. 

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Life sciences inventions surge

Among the leading technical fields, pharmaceuticals (+10.2 percent ) and biotechnology (+6.3 percent ) showed the biggest increases in terms of patent filings. Medical technology (+2.6 percent ) accounted for the most inventions in 2020, retaking the top spot from digital communication, which had been the most active field in 2019. The previous growth champions, digital communication (which includes technologies enabling 5G networks) and computer technology (including AI-related inventions), continued to show strong patenting activity, ranking second and third respectively, and growing by 1.0 percent  and 1.9 percent  on 2019. Meanwhile, transport showed the largest drop (-5.5 percent ), especially in the sub-fields of aviation and aerospace (-24.7 percent ), and to a lesser extent automotive (-1.6 percent ). 

China and South Korea post rapid growth 

In terms of geographic origin of inventions, the top five countries in 2020 were again the US (44 293 applications), followed by Germany (25 954), Japan (21 841), China (13 432) and France (10 554). But there was considerable variation in growth rates: As in 2019, the strongest increases among the top 10 countries came from Chinese (+9.9 percent ) and South Korean (+9.2 percent ) applicants, with Chinese firms filing more applications in biotechnology, electrical machinery/apparatus/energy (where many inventions for clean energy technologies are filed) and digital communication. Korean companies were particularly active in electrical machinery/apparatus/energy, telecommunications, semiconductors and computer technology.

Conversely, US patent applicants, who account for a quarter of all applications at the EPO, filed 4.1 percent  fewer applications in 2020, dropping significantly in the areas of transport, electrical machinery/apparatus/energy and organic fine chemistry. Patent applications from Japanese companies and inventors were down 1.1 percent  on the previous year, with the biggest declines seen in transport and optics. 

Fewer applications from Europe

Companies and inventors from the EPO’s 38 member states filed over 81.000 European patent applications last year, down by 1.3 percent  due to fewer filings in fields such as measurement (which includes sensor technologies; -10.4 percent ,), organic fine chemistry (-3.6 percent ) and electrical machinery/apparatus/energy (-2.8 percent ). Nevertheless, applicants from the EPO states posted significant growth in pharmaceuticals (+15 percent ) and biotechnology (+4.5 percent ).

Netherlands saw the biggest decline

 At country-level, the volume of filings also diverged significantly: While applications from Germany, Europe’s biggest country of origin, dropped by 3.0 percent  in 2020, French and Italian inventors filed 3.1 percent  and 2.9 percent  more applications respectively. Among the top 10 European countries, the Netherlands saw the biggest decline (-8.2 percent ), followed by the UK (-6.8 percent ). Patent filings from Sweden and Denmark reached the levels of 2019, while Finland recorded 11.1 percent  growth, thanks to a strong increase in the number of inventions in digital technologies. 

For detailed statistics, see the EPO Patent Index 2020.

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Author profile picture Arnoud Cornelissen has for many years been writing about science and technology in, among others, various Dutch newspapers.