EPO chief: ‘It takes time before patent filings lead to growth and job creation’


A patent filing is usually the very first step in the process to commercialise a new product or new process but it can take years before the invention described in a patent filing is ready to be commercially introduced in the market, says Benoît Battistelli.

Benoît Battistelli is president of the European Patent Office (EPO). He was responding to e-mailed questions by Frédéric Simon, EurActiv’s publisher and editor.

Patent filings in Europe have risen for the fourth consecutive year. However, unemployment continues to increase or remain stable at best. How do you explain this? Is there a disconnect between patent filings and job creation? Are patents a reliable indicator of the economic health of a country or region?

Patent filings are in the first place an indicator of investment into research and new technology. They are an important and efficient means for the legal protection of R&D work done by innovating businesses, engineers and researchers.

Using patents to protect an invention is a strategic option which can be used to facilitate the market success of a product, which in its turn, may indeed lead to the creation of new jobs and economic growth. Provided that the product is a good one, of course, and meets the needs of society.

There are many success stories of this kind. Just think of the micro-processor or recent developments in the mobile sector or the car industry. Much of this is rooted in a well-developed IP strategy.

It should be stressed, however, that it takes time before patent filings can possibly lead to economic growth and job creation. A patent filing is usually the very first step in the process to commercialise a new product or new process. It can take years before the invention described in a patent filing is ready to be commercially introduced in the market.

Moreover, only the successful innovations lead to in the end to economic growth and higher employment. In this sense there is clearly a connection between patent filings and job creation, but the connection has an uncertain nature and takes time to materialise.

As such an increase in patent filings could be considered as an early indicator of future job creation and the long-term economic resilience of an industry, country or region.

Nearly two thirds of patents are coming from outside of Europe. What does that tell us? Does it mean Europe is falling behind?

In the first place, these filings reflect a welcome investment in the European economy. Europe is a hugely attractive market for innovating businesses around a globe, both in terms of market size and its potential for economic growth.

Secondly, it is a sign of trust in the European economy and its structures, last but not least also in the quality and efficiency of the European patent. As for Europe's position this means that although we can be proud of our achievements and performance in closing technology gaps, we need to continue with our efforts to invest in R&D.

The share of European filings has been stable around one third for the past years, which is a good sign in view of the steady growth in patent applications. And the fact that in nine out of the ten most patent-intense technical fields, European companies are filing the greatest numbers of patent applications, shows that at least in the comparison with some competitors the gap is narrowing. I see this as a positive sign.

Within Europe, the situation is stable but rather contrasted, with the number of patent filings rising sharply in the Netherlands (+17.2%) but falling in Belgium (-7.4%). How do you explain this? Can countries be grouped in different categories, for example according to population size, types of industry or R&D intensity?

Europe is certainly not homogeneous in terms of industrialisation, and that is also reflected in the number of patent filings. Abrupt changes as the ones you mention, however, are often the indicative of a change in the patenting strategy of large firms.

But we have also looked in the relation between the number of patent filings and population size, and there is a clear division among European countries in the use of patents, as you can see from this chart: Ten European states are clearly above the EU-level of 129 applications per million inhabitants, while the others are below, which is also reflected in the absolute number of patent applications filed.

There are currently five European companies in the top ten. How has the situation evolved over time and what do you expect ten years from now?

From a European perspective, the situation has been stable as far as the number of top-ten companies is concerned, while the names of the actors on that list keep changing, of course.

In 2013, Europe increased its standing with Philips advancing from the twelfth position in 2012 to third in the current ranking. That came at the expense of ZTE, the first-ever Chinese company to make it to the top ten level in applications at the EPO in 2012.

Generally we can observe, however, that electronic companies have advanced to replace actors in more traditional sectors, such as engineering and pharmaceuticals. With BASF, there is only one chemicals company in the higher ranks, a clear change in pattern compared with the 1990s.

And the number of Japanese companies represented in the top ten has also diminished if compared with the situation ten years when computer technology was on the upswing and, accordingly, the electronics sector became dominant. In that sense, the top ten list also reliably reflects the change in technology.