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The statistics are straightforward: European inventors are falling behind in the global patent rush. What is far less clear is whether this matters.

For most of the past 30 years, the leaders in patent filing were without doubt Japan and the US, with Europe bumping along in third place. But from the early 2000s, China began to emerge as a significant force, and each year since 2011 more patent applications have been filed in China than in any other intellectual property office around the globe.

The initial rush was for domestically filed patents, but Chinese companies soon began looking for international markets, with the latest data from the European Patent Office (EPO) putting China fourth in the volume of patents filed in the EU last year, up from 12th less than a decade ago.

The majority of applications for patents in Europe now come from outside the continent, with Germany the only European country to make it into the top five. In total, more than 274,000 patents were applied for at the EPO last year, an all-time high.

For Denis Keseris, patent attorney at Withers & Rogers, the answer to the question of whether this matters is simple: yes. “Some companies are not getting to grips with the importance of intellectual property,” he says, adding that for Europe’s share of innovation “we should be filing a lot more patents”.

While the UK’s filings to the EPO grew at the fastest rate in three years, it still lags behind most large European economies (with the exception of Italy) in terms of filings per head of population.

Matt Dixon, another patent attorney, speaking on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys in the UK, says: “British businesses need to wake up and realise that patents are not just for wild-haired inventors, but are a key part of everyday innovation strategy”. Without legal protection for their products, businesses are leaving themselves open to being copied.

Part of the reason for the burgeoning number of Chinese patents in Europe is a need to catch up. China’s stock of international patents remains small compared with its research and development (R&D) spending. If Chinese companies are to compete for business in Europe, they will need to ensure that the IP underpinning their technology is owned by them and legal in the EU.

As an indication of the importance that the Chinese government attaches to the issue, in 2012 it began offering subsidies for foreign filings in addition to those it offers for domestic filings.

The often repeated charge that many of the patent applications from China are of low quality has some support in the data. While China accounts for about 10 per cent of patents filed to the EPO, when it comes to patents granted the proportion drops to 2 per cent.

The more knotty question is whether patent applications — or even those that are granted — tell us anything meaningful about the comparative state of innovation between countries.

The UK’s Intellectual Property Office, which is responsible for overall UK intellectual property policy as well as granting UK patents, trademarks and design rights, thinks not.

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“To approximate a level of innovation purely on patent numbers would be a one-dimensional, and woefully inadequate, way to understand the breadth of activity that characterises innovation,” according to a spokesman for the Office.

Stressing that patents themselves are not the only way to protect innovations, the official added that patents “provide formal protection but do not account for unregistered inventions, for example trade secrets, nor do they consider non- invention-based innovation”.

Elena Novelli, lecturer at Cass Business School in London, is more measured, saying: “Certainly, the number of patents filed is a metric, but it is not the ultimate metric.”

There are no hard and fast statistics on how many patents actually make money, but Bloomberg Business says that of 1.5m US patents in effect in the mid-2000s, only about 3,000 were commercially viable. Dr Novelli stressed that even among those which make money, their value can be very skewed, with a high number of inventions turning out not to have much value and only a few being of high value.

One attempt of many to try to look at innovation in a wider economic context is the Global Innovation Index, created by Cornell University, Insead, the business school, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

Alongside variables such as spending on R&D and licence fee receipts, it also includes such things as video uploads on YouTube and Wikipedia monthly edits in each country. Europe can rest far easier on this metric: the top five places are taken by Switzerland, the UK, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands. China is down in 29th place.

Sage develops energy-saving ‘smart glass’

It took two decades for Jean-Christophe Giron to develop a “smart glass” capable of cutting a building’s energy consumption by almost a third and blocking 98 per cent of solar radiation, writes Naomi Mapstone.

“This was a very long process where lots of teams participated in the invention. We were the first to find a solution that was durable,” says Professor Giron, now vice-president of research and development and product development at Sage, a wholly owned subsidiary of construction materials producer, Saint-Gobain, of France.

“Many people came up with solutions, but if you cycled them repeatedly it no longer worked. The goal was to find something durable.”

Unlike previous incarnations of electrochromic glass, which changed colour automatically in response to heat or light, Prof Giron’s glass can be controlled electronically via a wall switch or an automated system.

SageGlass (eds SageGlass is the patented name for the glass) has a coating that comprises five nano-layers that responds to a low voltage.

“This is a big step forward towards more eco-friendly building design and energy-efficient housing,” said Benoît Battistelli, president of the European Patent Office, announcing Prof Giron as a finalist in the European Investors Awards.

The glass can have a dramatic impact on the energy footprint of old and new buildings, cutting heating and air conditioning size by up to a quarter, lighting costs by 60 per cent and cooling loads for commercial buildings by up to 20 per cent.

It is also likely to open up new design possibilities for architects, says Prof Giron.

The glass has already been used to create a vaulted ceiling for the rooftop terrace at the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia and a seven-storey atrium at the US General Services Administration headquarters in Washington DC, among others.

“We know that when people are in buildings they feel much better when they can see through and see to the outside. And there are more and more studies that show that in terms of wellbeing and productivity in buildings, it’s essential to have this view to the outside,” says Prof Giron.

Even in the extreme cold of Scandinavia, the glass could be used extensively in a new building to achieve energy savings and maximise light. In winter, the glass harnesses the sun’s energy to heat rooms, while in summer it blocks heat radiation. The tint can also be varied on a single big piece of glass to create a work zone with maximum light and minimum glare, Prof Giron adds.

Professor Giron was a finalist in this year’s European Inventor Award, industry category.

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