2019 was a record year in patents. In fact, the European Patent Office (EPO) recorded substantial growth in some areas, such as digital communications and computer technology. As the fourth industrial devolution (4IR) materialises, companies such as Huawei, Samsung and L.G. continue to be particularly active in the field of research.
As we showed in our previous article, the EPO recorded growth of 4% in 2019 compared to the previous year, i.e. 18,1406 applications. While the USA retained its position as the most active country, Asian nations are showing increasing interest in the European market, especially thanks to Japan, China and Korea. However, the European states still account for the largest share of the market: 45% of total demand, most of which comes from Germany and France. The main sectors by number of applications are digital communications, medical technology and computer technology.
Digital communications: three strengths, one main one
This sector, in addition to being the largest in terms of number of applications, is also the fastest growing: compared to the previous year, the EPO recorded growth of 19.6%, for a total of 14,175 applications. This growth is motivated by the surge in China (+65%) as well as healthy growth in the US (+15%), while applications from European states are relatively unchanged. Each of these three areas accounts for about a quarter of total applications in this sector. It is not surprising to see that the top three applicants in this area are: Huawei, which with 3,524 applications is by far the most active company of the year (2,260 in this field); Ericsson, which represents almost all the applications coming from Sweden, the top European country in digital communications; and finally Californian company Qualcomm (1,061).
Upon further examination of the digital communication sector, two high-growth areas stand out: transmission of digital information, and wireless communication networks. The latter in particular, has had a significant boost with the advent of 5G and its faster data speeds, reduced lag time, and increased density for smart devices. Within wireless communication networks, there was a notable increase in patent applications related to wireless resource management, resource allocation and scheduling.
Large companies direct the new technologies
Regarding the other two main areas (medical technology and computer technology) things are different. The US leads the way, with around 40% of applications in both areas. Johnson & Johnson and Alphabet are the two leading companies in their respective sectors. However, while growth in medical technology remains modest overall, not even reaching 1%, computer technology remains one of the most developing fields.
With a patent application increase of 10%, computer technology saw the second biggest surge. The growth was mainly driven by patent applications coming from China (+19% increase on 2018), the US (+14%) and also from EPO member states (+9%).
There are new factors in the rise of computer technology: growth in this area is being driven by various industries, such as Alphabet, Microsoft and Samsung. Also logistics companies, automotive industry suppliers and medical firms are in the game, with innovation in security, medical imaging, and traffic control contributing to the increase in computer technology patent applications. Three sub-fields in particular - machine learning and pattern recognition; image data processing and generation; and data retrieval - are contributing to the increasing number of patent applications in computer technology.
France: exceptional public institutions
Despite a fall of 2.9%, France remains Europe's second most innovative country. Specifically, it recorded increases in: medical technologies (567 applications, +1.8%); organic fine chemistry (449, +4.2%); measurement (590, +9.1%); biotechnology (490, +12.4%).
In short, as António Campinos, President of the European Patent Office, states: ‘‘Again this year, the figures show that France is strong in innovation, making major contributions to European R&D that are putting the continent at the forefront of innovation worldwide.”
Although according to EPO data, most of the applications come from large enterprises (72%) or SMEs (individual inventors, 18%), public sector innovation is strong in France. Among the Top 50 applicants in 2019, the most active French company was a public entity: the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA). It is ahead of Valeo (-31.3%) and Safran, in 48th position. Other companies include Saint-Gobain and Thales. Among the various growth sectors, biotechnology stands out the most (490 demands, +12.4 %). A dynamism brought on by key players such as Sanofi and Inserm. The latter (also a public body) is also the main applicant in the pharmaceutical sector.