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Patent applications in Europe reach record level in 2021

Aidan Kendrick and Yann Meniere

The European Patent Office (EPO) received 188 600 applications in 2021, up 4.5% on the previous year and the highest number to date. The EPO's Patent Index 2021, published today, shows that patent filings rebounded significantly last year after a slight dip in 2020 (-0.6%).

The number of patent applications - an early indicator of companies' investments in research and development - increased in nine of the top ten most patent-active fields of technology, with digital communication and computer technology posting the strongest growth.

"The strong demand for patents last year shows that innovation has remained robust," said EPO President António Campinos. "It highlights the creativity and resilience of innovators in Europe and worldwide. They have filed higher numbers of patent applications and the strong growth in digital technologies provides compelling evidence of the digital transformation taking place across all sectors and industries," he said.

Growth of patent applications EN small

Digital and healthcare technologies boom

Digital communication (+9.4% compared with 2020) narrowly overtook medical technology (+0.8%) as the field with the largest number of European patent applications in 2021. Computer technology was the third strongest field, and the one with the steepest growth (+9.7%) among the top ten. The related fields of audio-visual technology (+24%) and semiconductors (+21%) saw unprecedented growth, albeit from a smaller base. The big increase in patent applications in digital technologies demonstrates the digital transformation, for example in smart urban mobility. Patent activity in pharmaceuticals (+6.9%) and biotechnology (+6.6%) also continued to boom, underlining high levels of innovation in vaccines and other areas of healthcare.

Technical fields with most patent applications EN small

Chinese companies post fastest growth 

The top five countries of origin for applications in 2021 were again the US - accounting for 25% of total filings - followed by Germany (14%), Japan (11%), China (9%) and France (6%) (see graph Origin of applications). Patent applications are highly concentrated in a few countries, with five countries accounting for 64% of European patent applications in 2021, and the top 20 countries accounting for 95%.

Top 50 countries for patent applications EN small

The growth in patent applications at the EPO in 2021 was mainly fuelled by filings from China (+24% compared with 2020) and the US (+5.2%). Patent filings from Chinese companies, in particular, have continued to climb steeply, more than quadrupling in the past decade. Applications from South Korea were also up in 2021 (+3.4%), while Japan experienced a slight drop in filings (-1.2%).Patent applications from the 38 European Patent Organisation countries increased last year (+2.8%), but in relative terms, the share of applications from Europe continued to decline, falling from 50% of the total in 2013 to 44% in 2021, as more players outside Europe, and especially those from Asia, seek to protect their inventions on the European market.

Europe trends: Nordic countries, Spain and Italy with solid growth

Europe's top filing countries, Germany (+0.3%) and France (-0.7%), remained essentially stable, while applications from the UK saw a further slight drop (-1.2%). Most European countries returned to growth in 2021, with patent filings increasing significantly from Sweden (+12.0%), Finland (+11.2%), Denmark (+9.2%), Spain (+8.9%), Italy (+6.5%), Switzerland (+3.9%), Belgium (+3.3%) and the Netherlands (+3.1%). There was also marked growth from countries with smaller patenting volumes (under 1 000 applications), such as Turkey (+21%) Portugal (+13.9%) and Poland (+12.8%). With respect to patent applications per capita, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland again topped the country ranking (see graph Patent applications per million inhabitants).

Huawei heads list of applicants

Huawei was the leading patent applicant at the EPO in 2021 (as in 2019), followed by 2020's leader, Samsung, and LG. Ericsson and Siemens both moved up a position, to fourth and fifth respectively. The top ten includes four companies from Europe, two from South Korea, two from the US, and one from each of China and Japan.

Top ten applicants EN small

One in five patent applications filed by an SME

A significant proportion of EPO applicants are smaller entities: last year, one in every five patent applications to the EPO originating in Europe came from an individual inventor or small or medium-sized enterprise (fewer than 250 employees), and a further 5% came from universities and public research organisations (see graph Breakdown of applicants by category).

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