In 2022 the European Patent Office (EPO) took several important steps towards becoming a truly modern and sustainable IP office. Rebuilding after the pandemic, the Office embraced new ways of working, pursued its major IT transformation, and renewed its focus on patent quality. It also ramped up its environmental, organisational, financial and societal impact initiatives to maximise its positive impact on society.
Central to our accomplishments was the investment we made in our people. Under Goal 1 of the Strategic Plan 2023 (SP2023) – Build an engaged, knowledgeable and collaborative organisation – we reinforced our efforts to: attract, develop, and retain top talent; focus on diversity and inclusion; transform our approach to learning; foster engagement and a sense of belonging; and ensure that our working environment – physical and digital – is fit for the New Ways of Working (NWoW) pilot.
In 2022, we achieved our target for examiner recruitment, welcoming 77 new examiners from 17 different nationalities, with 36% of them being women. Through policy changes such as the NWoW pilot and improvements to our social package, for example on parental leave, we provided greater flexibility and family-friendly support, ensuring we remain an attractive employer. To nurture the next generation of IP professionals, we launched the new Pan-European Seal Young Professionals Programme, offering young graduates unprecedented learning opportunities in IP and bringing fresh ideas into the EPO.
Developing our staff and transforming the EPO into a learning organisation continued to be a key priority. The skills framework was further developed in 2022 as the basis for learning at the EPO, while tailored development programmes continued to be developed for specific roles. To support individual learning, we organised eight iLearn Days in 2022 around various strategic themes and consolidated all e-learning resources under the iLearn brand.
The EPO also continued to invest in peer-to-peer learning, and in 2022 more than 700 staff members took part in targeted peer-to-peer knowledge sharing activities. We also conducted over 500 Continuous Knowledge Transfer events with 20 000 participants. The Management Community was also launched to facilitate learning, peer-to-peer exchanges, and collaboration among managers.
The start of the NWoW pilot was a milestone of the EPO in its transformation from an office-based organisation to one based on extensive flexibility in where and how we work, building on the experience of the pandemic. The introduction of the pilot scheme was supported by new tools, like the Planning Tool, a new workplace booking tool, and the new modern responsive intranet, to help staff and managers stay connected and manage their working lives.
Staff engagement remained a key priority for the EPO, with a strong sense of belonging being more important than ever during this profound transformation in how we work. The EPO conducted a survey, "Together, stronger", in 2022 to monitor staff engagement levels, which showed positive trends in 10 out of 13 categories, including flexibility, agile culture, collaboration and diversity and inclusion.
Our buildings, as our professional homes, are a vital part of fostering a sense of belonging. In 2022, we completed various projects aimed at creating vibrant and energising workspaces and improving the environmental sustainability.
The EPO continued to focus on social dialogue, where several achievements were made in terms of improvements to policies, as a result of more than 100 meetings with staff committees and unions in 2022.
Operational excellence and efficiency in HR, financial, recruitment, and procurement processes underpin all our Goal 1 activities and achievements.
Under Goal 2 – Simplify and modernise IT systems – the EPO continued its digital transformation, releasing state-of-the-art tools and platforms and decommissioning obsolete solutions. A milestone was reached with the digitalisation of our backend patent granting process (PGP) through the implementation of the new digital file repository, allowing the decommissioning of the legacy digital archive tool. We also started to integrate digital exchanges with WIPO in our PGP process and ensured that our IT systems would be ready for the start of the Unitary Patent.
In 2022, we concentrated our efforts on ANSERA, the central hub for search- and classification-related activities. This resulted in improvements to stability, search algorithms performance, visualisation of results, user interface, and overall reliability. We supported ANSERA users with comprehensive training, learning materials, and informative demonstrations.
Looking to improve our interactions with users, after a seven-month pilot phase involving over 180 external participants, we launched MyEPO Portfolio, a web-based online service offering a simplified approach to procedural submissions. Online services were further improved by introducing a new Central Fee Payment platform.
Following an external audit, the EPO received ISO 27001 certification of our information security management system in October 2022, highlighting the commitment to safeguard the confidentiality, integrity and availability of our information. Pursuing the long-term sustainability of the Office, we completed two major projects: the decommissioning of the mainframe and migration of data centres.
Under Goal 3 of our SP 2023 – Deliver high-quality products and services efficiently – we finalised the Patent Quality Charter, which officially came into effect on 1 October 2022. The Charter recognises the importance of providing users with the highest levels of legal certainty. It distils a set of principles that permeate every area of the patent granting process, enabling us to deliver excellence.
In the framework of our biennial User Satisfaction Surveys (USS), we launched a new series of surveys on 1 September 2022 which ran until April 2023. This started with the interview-based USS on opposition services, which generated more than 530 responses by early October. This survey comprised a dedicated questionnaire on oral proceedings (OP) by videoconference (VICO) according to which 77% of respondents found OP by VICO to be good or very good. The 2022/2023 survey counted 7 000 respondents and reported high levels of user satisfaction in many areas.
We deploy robust quality checks that encompass comprehensive and rigorous assessments to identify potential improvements. In 2022, the outcome of our audit procedures show that 82.6% of our searches and 76.6% of grants had no findings. Our quality initiatives involve also engaging in dialogues with our users, as highlighted by the Stakeholders Quality Assurance Panels, and formulating an annual Quality Action Plan. The external ISO 9001 audit in September 2022 confirmed our certification under the ISO standards for quality management (ISO 9001), reinforcing our commitment to provide users with the highest quality products and services.
To promote consistency and completeness in our written communications, a new common structure for communications issued for European patent applications was piloted. The feedback received from users was largely positive, and we plan to expand the use of this common structure in 2023.
In 2022 we undertook a comprehensive reorganisation of our operational units, leveraging our unprecedented digital transformation to connect them with each other. On 1 April, our examiner teams started working within eight technology communities, structured around the 14 EU Industrial Ecosystems and highlighting their contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This change is improving collaboration, consistency, timeliness, and quality across our operations.
Under SP2023, we established an office-wide ecosystem of Communities of Practice to encourage best practices and consistency of approach in areas such as opposition, computer-implemented inventions network, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, and standard defining organisations.
Building on the successful outcome of a pilot which ran for more than two and a half years and encompassed more than 7 400 opposition oral proceedings by videoconference, the EPO decided at the end of 2022 to make videoconferencing the new standard for all first instance oral proceedings, including opposition, as of 2023. This decision was taken considering the valuable feedback received from our users and underlines our commitment to adapting to evolving needs while maintaining the highest standards of efficiency and accessibility.
Our commitment to timeliness remains strong with 86.1% of search, examination, and opposition standard files completed on time in 2022, continuing a positive trend. The thoroughness of our searches is evident from our examiners' ability to find highly pertinent documents in the world's most extensive prior art collection, which comprises 82 million patent families, 146 million patent publications, and over one billion manual and automatic annotations. Despite the increasing workload, search timeliness shows 89.3% of the standard cases dealt with on time, with a mean duration of 4.9 months.
Consolidation of timeliness continued also in the examination front. The number of files older than 36 months continued to decrease to just 14.3% during 2022, from a baseline of 19.1% in 2019. Furthermore, our processing time from filing to grant was 44.2 months for EP first filings and 78.6% of standard examination cases were dealt with on time, with a mean duration of 24.3 months.
In 2022, we reduced the opposition stock to 4 346 pending files, less than the pre-pandemic level of 5 000. We also made progress in opposition timeliness for standard cases, with 44.1% completed within 18 months and a mean duration of 19.6 months.
Continued growth under Goal 4 – Build European patent system and network with a global impact – saw the European Patent Organisation welcome Montenegro as the 39th member state in October. Furthermore, an invitation was extended to the Republic of Moldova to accede to the European Patent Convention (EPC), reflecting our commitment to expanding and strengthening our network.
Significant bilateral co-operation agreements between national patent offices and the EPO were signed. Notably, substantial preparations were made for the launch of the unitary patent, including a high-level conference held in Brussels in November. Additionally, the European Patent Network (EPN) held its 16th Annual Meeting on Co-operation in May, further fostering collaboration and dialogue within the network.
As one of many initiatives to further strengthen the EPN, we established a new secondment scheme to offer qualified employees of other organisations opportunities to work at the EPO for a defined period, creating a continuous exchange of knowledge, skills and expertise.
Under the convergence programme, Working Groups 5 and 6, focused on "Claim drafting and structure" and "Examination practice for computer-implemented inventions and artificial intelligence" respectively, concluded their work by adopting recommendations for a common practice. Building on this achievement, the Administrative Council decided to continue the exercise with six new convergence topics.
The IT Co-operation programme made significant strides in 2022, with notable accomplishments in the Front Office project, with over 100 filings in pilot offices by the end of the year. Other important initiatives included the Data Quality project, the successful launch of the Single Access Portal, and the third release of the web-based SEARCH system, which included extensive non-patent literature for the first time and had almost 200 examiners in 19 countries participating in the pilot by the end of 2022.
Stepping up our efforts in multilateral co-operation, we engaged extensively with Africa and hosted the IP5, a forum comprising the world's five largest intellectual property offices, in June. Additionally, we also signed work plans with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as further confirmation of our commitment to international collaboration. By the end of 2022, the EPO operated 85 international co-operation agreements, including four validation agreements and 12 reinforced partnership agreements, effectively expanding our reach to one-quarter of the world's population.
The modernisation of the European Patent Academy marked important milestones, with the second online European Qualifying Examination (EQE) and the inaugural European Patent Administration Certification (EPAC) examination, which attracted 510 candidates from 33 countries. In 2022, the Academy set up 2 230 hours of training in patent granting, technology transfer and patent litigation, with a remarkable participation of 23 556 individuals. The eLearning centre saw 17 359 additional regular user accounts, further expanding access to valuable training resources.
Public access to patent knowledge was enhanced through the PATLIB 2.0 project, through improvements to the European Patent Register, and by extending the technology platforms on Espacenet. A new, comprehensive data policy underpinning these initiatives will support our aim of empowering users to leverage patent information to make informed decisions and contribute to innovation.
In 2022, under Goal 5 – Secure long-term sustainability, the EPO continued its efforts to shape a sustainable future with good progress in the implementation of the SP2023. The impact and benefits of these activities were monitored via a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) in the balanced scorecard, with the majority of KPIs showing solid improvements in 2022.
Advancing our goal of becoming a net zero organisation by 2030, we successfully reduced our overall emissions by approximately 713 t CO2e compared to 2021. This reduction is equivalent to the emissions associated with the electricity production in 618 households over a year. A flagship environmental initiative, the Vienna Green Hub project, was launched in 2022. This project aims to construct a building that will be carbon negative when in operation. The adoption and expansion of the MyEPO Portfolio platform has also resulted in substantial paper savings, with 52% of documents sent via online services in 2022.
As an important aspect of the EPO’s long-term sustainability and crucial for our role as a responsible public institution, the highest standards of good governance continued to be pursued. The EPO achieved its objective of becoming 100% ISO-certified in 2022, with extension of the quality management system to all areas of the Office, as well as certifications for occupational health and safety management and information security management.
The EPO continues to monitor its financial situation and consolidate the implementation of the six financial sustainability measures adopted in 2020. The coverage ratio, a key indicator of the EPO's financial sustainability, has been consistently monitored and reached 70.7% in December 2022.
All of the EPO's activities ultimately aim to have a positive impact on society. The highlights of our 2022 studies, platforms, and events contributed to several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). An important milestone for maximising our societal impact was achieved in 2022 with progress in the preparations for the creation of a new Observatory on Patents and Technology. This observatory will be structured around technology intelligence, legal and innovation policies, and diversity and transformation, further strengthening our commitment to comprehensive and forward-thinking initiatives.