A rebound in European patent filings is likely

The volume of patent applications filed by UK businesses in Europe fell slightly in 2020, according to the latest data published by the European Patent Office. However, with so much focus on innovation during the pandemic, it seems likely that filing activity will rebound quickly.  

UK based results

The Patent Index 2020 report shows that patent applications originating in the UK fell from 6,129 in 2018-19 vs 5,715 in 2019-20 – a fall of 6.8%. In recent years, the number of applications originating in the UK has grown strongly, with an increase of 6.4% in 2018/19 vs 8.3% in 2017/18.

However, this was not entirely unexpected as many businesses were forced to shift the focus from innovation to health and safety during the pandemic.  

The global picture

European patent applications originating in the US, Germany and Japan – the top three filing nations – were also down in 2020. However, those originating in China and South Korea increased sharply – rising by 9.9% and 9.2% respectively. While it’s difficult to give a definitive reason as to why this was the case, there are a number of possible explanations.

For China, the high level of support from its Government for R&D activity as it shifts to becoming an innovation economy, makes it a special case and could go some way in explaining the strong growth in patent applications.  This cultural shift is also reflected also in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasing filings by 34% and 65% respectively.

Patents by sector

The report reveals some significant variations in the amount of innovation activity underway in different industry sectors. In the UK, the sectors responsible for most European patent applications were computer technology, medical technology and biotech. Overall, there has been a surge in patent applications for life sciences inventions and digital technologies, which includes technologies enabling 5G networks, and computer technology, including AI-related inventions.

For obvious reasons, life sciences innovation has been in the spotlight globally in 2020. The UK has a strong global reputation for research and development in this field and ongoing research linked to Covid-19 will continue to generate European patent applications in the future.

Looking to the future

Despite a fall in the volume of European patent applications originating in the UK in 2020, recent economic growth forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), provide some cause for optimism. The UK economy is expected to grow by 4% this year and 7.3% in 2022 and as a result, investment in R&D should increase, and a rebound in demand for European patents is likely.

The pandemic has forced industry leaders and policymakers in many countries to re-assess the importance of investing in home-grown innovation and manufacturing capabilities. In the UK, the vital role played by Oxford Pharmaceuticals and AstraZeneca in developing a vaccine to protect against Covid-19, and get it to market quickly, has been recognised globally. There are also many examples of SME manufacturers innovating to help meet a surge in global demand for PPE, hand sanitiser and testing kits. With so much focus on innovation, it seems likely that post-pandemic patenting activity will increase.

While the immediate future remains uncertain, it must be hoped that the pandemic will leave a positive legacy for businesses in the UK and elsewhere – encouraging businesses to continue to invest in R&D and support the creation of more resilient economies.

David Elsy, partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.