Small and medium-sized enterprises are a pillar of the European economy, and are key to ensuring economic growth, innovation and job creation across Europe. But in order for companies to succeed, they need the right environment for innovation. The EPO plays its part by providing robust patents and access to published patent information. We also carried out a number of studies in 2017 to further raise awareness among SMEs of the impact of intellectual property protection, and to train them in using it effectively.
In September 2017 we published a set of 12 case studies on European SMEs, highlighting the variety of different ways in which patent protection can be employed by businesses. Based on extensive interviews with senior managers, the studies provide concrete examples of SMEs from 11 different countries across Europe. The SMEs are active in a wide range of industry sectors, from medical technology and biotech to ICT, energy and the environment. They include start-ups and university spin-offs in various stages of development, as well as more traditional family-type enterprises whose business models are based on patented inventions and who have followed different commercialisation paths.
The studies demonstrate that patents can be a springboard for success for smaller companies and make all the difference to a business, especially in gaining access to funding - which is one of the most pressing issues for many small enterprises.
Each case study features a number of "takeaway" points highlighting factors that have contributed to successful IP strategies and IP management. These include the potential for using customer feedback in developing innovations and the benefits of regular consultations between in-house IP practitioners and management. The case studies highlight how readily available patent information enables companies to analyse the prior art, the applicable freedom to operate and the competitive landscape for specific patents. The case studies also emphasise the advantages of increasing IP awareness throughout the company through training. The EPO's Academy is using the case studies in a series of training activities supporting SMEs and their advisors across Europe.
The companies featured in the case studies talk about what they expect from the future Unitary Patent and Unified Patent Court, including time and cost savings, and the increased legal certainty across the EU market.
In order to quantify these benefits, the EPO published a study in October 2017 that looked at the potential impact on the European economy of greater harmonisation of EU patent protection.
The study, Patents, Trade and FDI in the European Union, was conducted by a team of economists from the EPO, the University of Colorado Boulder and the London School of Economics. It found that greater harmonisation of patent protection in the EU could significantly enhance technology transfer through greater trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). It also found that improved harmonisation of Europe's patent system has the potential to increase trade and FDI in high-tech sectors in the EU by up to 2% and 15% respectively. This could lead to annual gains of EUR 14.6 billion in trade and EUR 1.8 billion in FDI.
According to the study, while patents already have a positive effect on trade and FDI in Europe, their impact is currently hindered by the lack of truly barrier-free EU-wide patent protection. Today companies are still faced with a fragmented system following the grant of a patent by the EPO. These include national validation and maintenance fees payable in each country in which protection is desired. In addition, patents are subject to uneven levels of national protection and to the risk of parallel litigation, with the potential for different outcomes in different countries.
The Unitary Patent will address these shortcomings. By cutting overall costs dramatically, it will facilitate access to the European technology market, particularly for SMEs, universities and research centres.