Startups with a unique product or technology solution that they want to protect from being pinched will often consider filing for a patent, which grants the right to claim that idea as your own intellectual property. Patents protect intellectual property from being replicated by other businesses — a protection that is particularly important when companies like university spinouts, created off the back of academic research, are breaking new ground with novel solutions to current problems.
The typical patent lasts 20 years after being successfully granted — after which it’ll expire and the invention that was protected becomes public domain and free to use.
The demand for patents is on the rise. Last year, the European Patent Office (EPO) received more than 190k applications — a new record and 2.5% more than the year before. In 2022, 20% of the applications the EPO received were submitted by individual inventors and small and medium businesses, like startups, with 7% coming from universities or public research organisations. The remaining 73% were submitted by large enterprises.
Not only do patents safeguard a startup’s money-making idea from imitation, but being granted one is also a good way to attract investors. A recent report from the EPO revealed that early-stage startups that filed for patents were 6.4 times more likely to secure funding.
But which countries are filing the most applications — and which country approved the most last year? Here are Europe’s patent hotspots, according to data from the European Patent Office.
Places where patents are hot
Germany comes out on top for both the highest number of patent applications and the highest number of granted patents — globally, it ranked second for volume of applications. The two aren’t connected — patents filed with the EPO can take up to three years to be approved, so many of those granted will not have been filed in the same year.
Though leading, applications in Germany are down on 2021’s figures — Yann Ménière, the EPO’s chief economist, says this is “part of a long-term trend as other parts of the world throw their efforts into digital technologies and ICT, while Germany remains reliant on traditional mechanical engineering sectors which have been in steady decline for years.”
He adds that Germany is also making this shift towards digital tech, but as a large ecosystem, the transition will take longer than other countries.
The rest of the top 10 in Europe, bar Italy, saw positive growth in the number of applications from 2021. With a 5.9% increase year on year, Switzerland saw the most growth. A report this year by Dealroom found that investment for Swiss deeptechs — a vertical that often involves patenting tech — surged by 85% in 2022. The country also boasts the university that, according to Dealroom data, spins out the most companies from academic research: ETH Zurich.
Switzerland consistently leads in terms of European patent applications per million inhabitants, highlights Ménière — he says the Swiss economy has “fewer natural resources” and so relies on “highly diverse industry ecosystems being able to convert imported goods or raw materials into value-added products, often in the form of knowledge-based products and services”. This leads to novel ideas that are patentable — and with patent applications coming from a “wide range of fields”, there’s less chance of crossover and more diversity across requests.
Demand causes delay
Despite more applications coming in across most of Europe, fewer passed the test: every country in the top 10 for applications saw the number of granted patents decrease between 2021 and 2022. Finland’s figures fell the most, with almost 30% fewer successful applications between the two years.
Ménière says that the rise in demand across Europe meant that the EPO decided to reorganise its processes to optimise the process for future applications — that delayed some of the work being done on analysing and processing applications, hence the dip in granted patents. The delay, however, “is expected to be transient”, and the EPO hopes that its new system will help with catching up on the backlog quicker.