Inventing a healthier future

10/14/2014
Photo: DNA rapid test

DNA rapid test invented by Christofer Toumazou - the winner of the European Inventor Award 2014; © EPO

Innovation in medical technologies is booming. That is why MEDICA and COMPAMED attract such huge audiences each year, and an increasing number of exhibitors. New technologies are combining material science, electronics, engineering and biochemistry. With an increasing number of us living longer, the market for healthcare appliances has ever greater potential.

At the European Patent Office (EPO) we see new technical solutions described in patent applications many months, or even years, before products reach the market. We also see trends: the behaviour of our applicants is changing, and our databases help businesses see the bigger picture as some technical areas surge ahead whilst others fade.

In our Annual Report 2013 we reported that, yet again, the greatest number of patent applications made to the EPO was in medical technologies, up 2 percent to 10,668. Compare this with other leading fields like digital communications and computing technology, which both saw around 9,000 applications last year. More stark, however, was the continuing decline in patent applications last year for biotechnology (down 4 percent to 5,381) and pharmaceuticals (down 14 percent to 5,396). What is going on here?

Looking at the longer term ten-year trend we have seen patenting activity in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals struggle to keep pace with medical technologies. If patenting activity were a crude metric for R&D activity, then this would suggest healthcare developers are switching their focus in some areas to devices and equipment – for both diagnosis and therapy – in preference to medicines or biochemistry. This is understandable given the costs of bringing a new drug to market, compared with the costs for a new device.

 
 
Photo: Implant

Implant invented by Serge Cosnier and Philippe Cinquin; © EPO

Companies are becoming more discerning in what they patent and when. They need to be sure of the business case for each invention before investing thousands of euros in patent applications. But when they get it right, the patents can attract investment, cement licensing deals and secure market share. So a decline in patenting in a particular area is not necessarily indicative of a decline in innovation, but rather a more selective approach towards patenting.

For businesses wanting to better understand their own technology market, the EPO’s free online databases have significantly improved transparency. It is now easier than ever before to use the Espacenet database to discover what technologies your competitors are patenting, or find new technology partners, suppliers and customers, just by browsing the database for the technologies which interest you. The EPO’s collection includes over 88 million records from over 100 countries. Patent data is often overlooked by researchers who focus solely on academic journals – but many of the latest developments appear in patents but nowhere else!

If you find a European patent application which could be barrier to your own plans, then take a closer look at its status or progress in the European Patent Register. If you see a pending application for a technology you can prove is not new or inventive, you can file observations to assist the examiner in their work. And if you find a document in Espacenet with an English abstract and diagrams of potential interest, but the main text is in a foreign language – fear not! The EPO’s instant machine translation tool Patent Translate works in 32 languages.

To get a patent requires full disclosure of the invention, even though the application might be refused despite considerable costs spread over several years. To minimise these risks most applicants start with an international patent application to defer the bulk of costs for 2.5 years, whilst they refine their invention and test the market. The EPO can help here in several ways.

First, EPO provides high quality search results within six months of receipt of a request, checking dozens of databases – technical reports and academic papers as well as old patents. Second, EPO provides a written opinion on the patentability of the invention, giving a clear indication as to the likely success of the application if sent on to other patent offices. Third, if the application is amended because of a critical search report, EPO can assess it in an International Preliminary Examination Report (IPER), giving further indications as to its merits. This IPER is relied upon by many other patent offices around the world. All of this helps to put applicants in the strongest position, armed with the best information of the future for their application, before big investments are made.

 
 
Photo: Christofer Toumazou

Christofer Toumazou - winner of the European Inventor Award 2014; © EPO

Heroes of invention

Through the annual European Inventor Award, the EPO shines a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the research laboratory who have created game-changing technologies. These inspirational scientists and engineers come from all technical disciplines, and it is surprising to see how many breakthroughs in medical technology have come from people without a medical background. Rather, they are often engineers, or inter-disciplinary teams with an array of skills, who have advanced healthcare. Here are just five recent finalists or winners, with amazing stories.

Christofer Toumazou – winner in 2014, inventor of a rapid DNA test on a USB stick.
Click here to the YouTube video

Philippe Cinquin & Serge Cosnier - finalists in 2014, inventors of an implantable glucose fuel-cell to perpetually power e.g. heart pacemakers
Click here to the YouTube video

Yves Jongen – finalist in 2013, inventor of a proton therapy device for treating cancer
Click here for the YouTube video

David Gow – finalist in 2013, inventor of the i-limb prosthetic hand
Click here to the YouTube video

Josef Bille – winner in 2012, inventor of laser eye surgery
Click here to the YouTube video


MEDICA.de; Source: Jeremy Philpott, European Patent Office (EPO)

Read more about the European Inventor Award
Read more about the European Patent Office