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Report warns Europe over lack of patents, while EPO workers strike over increased workload

A new report warns that Europe is in danger of 'missing the boat' on commercial returns of nanotechnology, as the number of patent applications remain way below those from the US and Asia. The report has been released in the same week that patent examiners in the European Pat...

A new report warns that Europe is in danger of 'missing the boat' on commercial returns of nanotechnology, as the number of patent applications remain way below those from the US and Asia. The report has been released in the same week that patent examiners in the European Patent Office (EPO) went on strike, complaining of over-work. The examiners believe that the increasing number applications they are asked to examine endangers the quality of their work. The nanotechnology report, prepared by Marks & Clerk - a leading firm of patent and trademark attorneys, examines the rapid growth of patent applications in the US and Far East in three key areas of nanotechnology - nanoelectronics, nanoenergy and nanotechnology in health and personal care. The report states that patent applications are not matched in these areas in Europe, in spite of substantial investment in research in these fields. Globally, annual priority filings - the first application for a patent - nearly trebled between 2000 and 2003 in all three fields covered by the report. But a glance at how these figures break-down shows that Europe did not contribute to this increase on a par with its competitors in the US and Asia. In nanoelectronics, amongst the top 30 players, which account for around half of the total number of patent families, only eight per cent of filings were made by European applicants. US applicants filed 24 per cent, and Japanese applicants 51 per cent. A similar picture emerges in nanoenergy. Among the priority filings between 2000 and 2005 were 398 from the US (although some of these may have been from non-US applicants choosing to file there because of the importance of the US market). Over the same period, there were 278 priority filings in Japan, 77 in South Korea and 43 in China. By comparison, Germany filed just 35, the UK 18, and France 10. A further 28 were filed at the European Patent Office (EPO). Europe's relatively weak performance comes in spite of record levels of investment in nanotechnology. Several EU Member States have made nanotechnology a priority at a national level, while the European Commission made 1.429 billion euro available during the Sixth Framework Programme, from 2002 until 2006. 'Whilst it is good to see significant public investment in Europe, the low number of patents filed shown by our report gives serious cause for concern,' said Dr Rhian Granleese, a partner at Marks & Clerk and co-author of the report. Some estimates predict that the value of the nanotechnology-related product and services market will exceed USD 1 trillion [0.78 trillion euro] by 2015, but European institutions and companies may be foregoing their claim to commercial returns by not filing patents on their research. 'It is possible that a number of institutions and companies are not recognising the potential value of their research. Some of the patents filed now will be deemed worthless, but others will prove to be of enormous value. Although the European Commission and the EU-funded NanoRoadMap project have demonstrated awareness of the problem, they have yet to yield results,' said Dr Granleese. Europe is performing slightly better in nanotechnology for health and personal care. The US and Asia remain dominant in terms of patent applications, but the gap is smaller. Between 2000 and 2005, the largest number of priority filings was in the US (380), followed by China (147) and Japan (41). Europe was represented by Germany (38), France (32) and the EPO (20). The report notes that many nanoelectronics key players are neglecting potential key markets, most notably China. While all of the top 30 players file in the US, Japan and Europe, only four (Samsung, Infineon, Philips and IBM) have filed patent applications in China. 'Our research revealed a growing amount of grass roots patent filing by domestic institutions that may well nudge the bigger international players into registering nanoelectronic patents on Chinese soil,' commented Dr Granleese. Although the Marks & Clerk report highlights the lack of patents coming out of Europe, examiners at the EPO believe that they are being asked to assess too many applications within too tight a timeframe. Employees defended their right to work to a high quality by striking on 9 May. The strikers say that, under pressure from the escalation in patent applications, management requires them to process more and more files each year. The number of applications reaching the EPO has increased by nearly 50 per cent over the last decade, while the office's productivity has risen by only 30 per cent. The EPO now plans to introduce a new system for assessing the work of the examiners. In turn, the examiners believe this will force them to process even more files. It is these plans that have led to strike action on 9 May.