Academic researchers are running far ahead of the corporate sector in filing patent applications for biotechnology inventions. But the vast bulk of these patents are being filed in the US or Japan, not in Europe, a new report has found.

The report by leading patent and trademark attorneys Marks & Clerk will fuel concerns that, despite recent indications of a strong revival in the European biotechnology industry, the sector’s research base is in danger not only of trailing ever further behind the well-funded institutions in the US but of losing ground to a biotechnology surge in East Asia and other emerging markets.

In a comparison of the top 20 biotechnology patent filers from academia and industry between 2002 and 2006, only one company – Genentech – made it into Marks & Clerk’s top five, with a total of 421 patent families assigned over the five-year period. This put Genentech at number four, way below the Japan Science and Technology Agency (1,022 patent families assigned) and also behind the University of California (543 patent families) and the US government (443). The University of Texas came in at number five, with 277 patent families filed.

Moving further down the scale, the top European universities failed even to make it into the top 20 academic filers for 2002-06. This was despite the European Union having the highest number of science and engineering graduates per capita in the world, points out Marks & Clerk in its Biotechnology Report 2007. The closest Europe came to the top 20 was the University of Oxford’s 65 patent families (assigned to Isis Innovations Ltd), compared with the 75 that secured Harvard University 20th place in the academic rankings.

Setting aside the Japan Science and Technology Agency’s dominant lead and the presence of the University of Tokyo at number 13 (100 patent families) in the academic chart, all of the other top 20 applicants were US-based.

Record 'reflects badly' on leading science base

Dr Gareth Williams, partner at Marks & Clerk and co-author of the report, said Europe’s patent-filing record “reflects badly on its leading institutions, which are still failing to translate their enormous skills base into commercial reality. Although Europe is making strong advances in this area through the development of spin-out companies and increased patent licensing, it needs to move from a position of growth to being a challenger on the international stage”.

Academic patents “are very valuable and are often highly cited as they cover fundamental technologies," Williams added. “Yet Europe is missing out enormously to the US in this area.”

Looking at the full quota of biotechnology patent applications across academia and industry, Marks & Clerk’s top 20 showed academic filing outpacing the commercial sector by 51% in 2002-06. Among the key corporate assignees, Europe fared somewhat better than on the academic front, with the Danish Novozymes in at number five (162 patent families assigned) and GlaxoSmithKline in 18th place. Ahead of Novozyme were Genentech, Millennium Pharmaceuticals (272 assigned), General Hospital (201) and Applera (195).

All the same, Williams noted, corporate patent filing is “necessarily more sporadic, focused on certain technologies, compared with the more sustained filing from the academic sector”. Now that the regulatory environment had improved at the European patent office, he said, there was “frankly no excuse for Europe not to make more commitment to overcome this historic gulf."

Far East a 'major force'

The stellar performance of the Japan Science and Technology Agency highlights the emergence of East Asia as “a major force to be reckoned with for Europe” in the biotechnology sector, Marks & Clerk points out. While the volume of patent applications in Europe remains substantial, it has shown little growth outside Denmark, which tripled its filings from 75 in 2002 to 225 in 2006.

Patent filings from Japan rose by 250% over the same period, the report found. Moreover, China stepped up its applications from almost none in 2002 to around 50 in 2005. This partly reflects trends in talent migration, Marks & Clerk says. “Whereas Chinese inventors historically operated outside China,” the firm commented, “increasing alignment between China’s patent filing and its inventors suggests China is now drawing back its home-grown talent.”

On a more positive note, the report highlights an increasingly commercial mindset in biotechnology patenting, with more of a focus on specific technologies. In 2002, this activity extended across a variety of patent classes and included a high level of speculative, sequence-based inventions related to genetic engineering. By 2006, however, research had become far more concentrated, with 45% of biotech patents falling into the A61K class (peptides, antigens, antibodies and gene therapy).

This actually meant a slight global decline in patenting activity, the report observes, with international applications through the Patent Cooperation Treaty route dropping from around 2,200 in 2002 to 1,000 in 2005. The trend was offset, though, by growth in the number of patents filed with national patent offices and the number of biotechnology patents granted (up by 18% between 2002 and 2006).

“This supports the picture that the industry is becoming increasingly mature and commercial, with a smaller number of stronger filings being filed more widely across the globe, aiming to capture a greater market,” Marks & Clerk commented.