«Switzerland is the most patent-intensive country in the world»
Patents protect innovation and at the same time they drive innovation. During our Swiss-Food Talk on August 15, three innovation experts discussed the importance of patents for the Swiss economy. Patents are also important for start-up companies and SMEs. After all, patents make it easier to find fundings for innovations and bring them to market.
Friday, August 18, 2023
In relation to its population, Switzerland is the world champion in patents and also led the «Global Innovation Index» of the World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO in 2022. Switzerland is a world leader, especially in the fields of medical research, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, chemistry and measurement (which also includes watches).
Nevertheless, patents are subject to permanent criticism, especially in the food sector. That is why this Swiss-Food Talk addressed the question of how Switzerland benefits from patents. For Anaïc Cordoba, legal expert at the Institute for Intellectual Property (IPI), patents are a prerequisite for a strong and innovative economy. A patent not only protects intellectual property, but through the compulsory publication of the patent it also creates transparency and thus gives something back to society. Others can access the detailed description of the invention and build on this knowledge. The actual patent protection is limited to maximal 20 years.
Patents create competitive advantages
For a patent to be granted, three conditions must be met. First, the invention must be novel. Second, it must have a certain originality (“inventive step”). This means that not everyone working in the same field should automatically come up with the same idea. And third, the invention must be industrially reproducible.
Patents make economic sense for companies. They create a competitive advantage for the owners and generate sales through the exclusive right of use for a limited period of time. In principle, patents are linked to geographical units. In addition to the Swiss patent, there are patents in Europe and worldwide. The boundaries of patent protection can therefore vary. The IPI sees itself not only as a federal agency, but also as a service provider. It supports companies in patent searches. This is extremely important because it must first be made sure that the invention does not already exist.
Swiss innovative spirit
Nikolaus Thumm has been dealing with patent issues for many years - as an employee of the IPI, as chief economist of the European Patent Office in Munich and today as scientific advisor to the ETH Board. He praises the Swiss spirit of innovation: «Switzerland is the most patent-intensive country in the world.» This means that Switzerland has the most registered patents per inhabitant.
It is noteworthy that groundbreaking inventions often come from SMEs. And we know that SMEs that use patents have better market and growth opportunities. However, as far as SMEs are concerned, there is a gap. Many SMEs do not use patents, others use them very professionally. That's why it's important to find out the hurdles that prevent SMEs from using patents. According to Thumm, this is due to a lack of knowledge about patents, the perceived costs of patent applications or even the fear of disclosing trade secrets. In some cases, patents are also seen as irrelevant, and they are perceived as somewhat sluggish for technologies that are developing rapidly.
Patents are signals for investors
SMEs are often torn between protecting their own trade secrets or filing patents. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, a mix of secrecy on the one hand and disclosure with patent protection on the other has proven successful. The ETH Domain supported a total of 310 inventions in 2022, and the federal universities have an interest in ensuring that basic research also leads to socially relevant applications. Spin-offs, which the ETH Domain actively promotes, serve this purpose. This also shows another side of the importance of patents. Patents are signals for investors. A spin-off with patents is easier to finance because of the exclusive rights of use over a certain period of time. All in all, for Nikolas Thumm it is clear: «Without patents and licenses, it won't work.» The Swiss economy is dependent on patent protection.
Patent searches also inspire
Christoph Brunschwiler, technology and innovation expert at the Hightech Zentrum Aargau, explains the role of patents in cantonal promotion for innovation. Each year, the Hightech Zentrum Aargau promotes around 120 projects and invests around 14 million Swiss francs. The team of experts offers an innovation network and sees itself as a sparring partner and innovation companion. It guides companies through the funding jungle and sees itself as a bridge to potential research partners. The goal is to promote innovation processes in companies. This also means, for example, that patent searches at the IPI are accompanied. On the one hand, Brunschwiler believes that patent protection is an important basis for innovation, but patent searches also have another advantage: they reveal what others have already done and can also inspire further innovations.
When artificial intelligence invents
In the subsequent discussion, the topic about the hurdles for SMEs when applying for patents came up again. It is clear to the experts that companies - even if they use government support measures - ultimately need an experienced patent attorney to accompany them. In the future, artificial intelligence (AI) will also be used for patent searches, but in the end, people will still be needed to assess the results. Artificial intelligence could, however, also support companies in patent applications, and it will be particularly exciting if the AI itself makes inventions. Based on current law, these would not be patentable, because at the moment it still takes flesh-and-blood inventors for a patent to be granted. By the way: In Switzerland, a partial revision of the patent law is currently pending, which was initiated by the motion Hefti «For a modern Swiss patent». The revision is currently being discussed by the Science and Education Commission. Its aim is to make patent law even more SME-friendly.
«How Switzerland benefits from patents»
At the Swiss-Food Talk on August 15, 2023, Anaïc Cordoba, Institute for Intellectual Property, Dr. Niklaus Thumm, consultant ETH Domain, and Christoph Brunschwiler, innovation expert of the Hightech Center Aargau, informed and discussed. The video of the Swiss-Food Talk can be found here.
«Patents on Seeds?!»
This was the topic of a Swiss-Food Talk already held on May 17, 2022. Three representatives from research, start-up and industry spoke about the reasons for and importance of patents, especially in plant breeding.
The European Patent Office reports more patent applications for 2022 than ever before. A particularly large number of patents were filed in the field of sustainable technologies - such as clean energy. Switzerland is still one of the most innovative countries in the world, ranking seventh in Europe. To ensure that this remains the case, policymakers must continue to advocate for research-friendly framework conditions in the future.
The European Patent Office (EPO) has dismissed an appeal by various NGOs against a patent on a bell pepper held by Syngenta. This has been reported in various media. However, the furor whipped up by the media in connection with these plant-related patents is unwarranted. There is no need for plant breeders to fear a ‘patent trap.’ On the contrary, patents promote transparency and help to drive progress.