Austria is tenth in the global patent race

, am

Mariana Karepova has been at the helm of the Austrian Patent Office since 2015 and records numerous successes – despite the crises.

Innovations from Austria can certainly hold their own internationally: Last year, more than 11,000 patents were registered, which puts Austria in tenth place worldwide and fifth place in the EU. Even the Covid pandemic could not stop innovations from Austria – quite to the contrary. In future, the head of the Patent Office, Mariana Karepova, would like to encourage more female inventors to register innovations.

We have two years of the pandemic behind us. Have people and companies been innovative? Did they increase their intellectual property or, more simply, were there more or fewer patents and trademarks?

Mariana Karepova: You cannot speak of a uniform diagnosis for international patents as a whole, the developments have diverged: While there were more trademark applications, patents stagnated. Most recently, 11,031 patents from Austria were registered worldwide. This means that we have moved up to fifth place in the EU and tenth place worldwide, but overall, there were fewer patent applications, both at the Austrian Patent Office and internationally. This is due to the fact that the pandemic made life and work at companies more challenging, so that the steps after inventing, i.e. safeguarding, patenting, were neglected. Nevertheless, a lot is happening in the innovation scene unabated. The Covid pandemic has NOT torn a hole into research – something we also see in research funding: In the first pandemic year, the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG funded 35 percent more company projects. And research, development and innovation are, of course, precursors to patents. It was important for us to understand exactly how our customers fared during the crisis and how we could help them through this. That’s why, together with Joanneum Research, we surveyed 500 companies and researchers on their strategies during the crisis and afterwards. For 61 percent of those surveyed, the pandemic is a driver for opening up new markets and for new, very specific patents on innovations in the software sector, and more brands for their digital business models. Start-ups are the most optimistic about the future: 70 percent expect an increase in their trademark and patent applications.

Does this trend affect everyone or are there differences?

Karepova: There were noticeable drops in patenting primarily among SMEs, while the patent professionals, the large companies, have continued to increase. Like Styrian AVL List, which has led our company ranking since 2012, most recently with an all-time high of 205 newly filed inventions in 2021, followed by the two Vorarlberg companies Julius Blum GmbH with 70 and Zumtobel with 34 invention applications.

In difficult times, companies tend to put off patenting as a longer-term security measure. What can be done about this?

Karepova: That patenting falls by the wayside in times of production and supply problems is an understandable but very risky approach. Patenting should not be put off for too long. Because maybe then the invention is no longer new, someone else has already patented this solution or the public has already found out about it. This means that there is no longer a patent. I can no longer protect my innovation and my competitive advantage vanishes into thin air. We are trying to counteract the crisis.

Together with the European Commission and the EUIPO, the European Union Intellectual Property Office, we have made the step to patent and trademark particularly favourable for SMEs. Our SMEs and start-ups save up to 50 percent on national patents and up to 75 percent on trademarks – the funding campaign runs all year round. Since 2022, an Austrian patent costs only 275 euros. That is half the usual fee. An Austrian trademark costs 71 euros with this promotion.

It is not only cheaper than ever before, it is also easier than ever before: the entire range of services offered by the Patent Office is available online. The first step is particularly easy with us – basically, a scribbled sketch is enough to get us talking. We look at all the drafts together with the customers and tell them what the chances of obtaining patents and trademarks are, and what the best strategy is. This gets the SMEs to behave like the experts, i.e. not to jeopardise their strategic intellectual property.

Austrian companies operate very internationally. What is the best strategy for their intellectual property in a global environment?

Karepova: There is a universal rule that we give to companies: I have to protect my product or process where I produce it. That is, where too much information is already openly available, like in the production hall, where the specifications of my product can be copied and taken outside. I also have to safeguard where I sell – simply speaking, where people can take my product apart and imitate it. The more complex the technology, the more difficult this is, but in the end, it can never be ruled out. And last but not least: where my competitors are, i.e. those from whom I expect nothing good. These three aspects must be taken into account when a company is considering in which countries it should apply for patents.

A national patent need not always be in play if I know in advance that the focus of my business is global. But it is a good starting point to see if the innovation is new and inventive, if it can be patented at all, before it goes on the international journey. Many Austrian market leaders choose this path and secure their most important and fundamental technologies, their crown jewels, domestically first. As the Austrian Patent Office, we want to give companies the tools to secure their intellectual property exactly where they need it. This means that no matter whether they apply for patents and trademarks in Austria or in Europe, they can never go wrong with a well-founded search by our experts.

We have 236 experts for patents, trademarks, designs, artificial intelligence, software, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, electrical engineering and every other technical field, a wide range of advisory services and support programmes such as the Patent Cheque as well as workshops in the IP Academy for IP professionals and beginners.

Among your clients, as you mentioned, are many large top companies and IP professionals – you can be proud of that. What do you see as a hurdle for the smaller, younger companies? Are they sufficiently protected in their intellectual property?

Karepova: The hurdles are little time, incomprehensible information, lack of accessibility of patent offices and funding agencies, and lack of money. Changing that is our biggest incentive. And I can say that we are already quite far along. In the past, patent offices were venerable but closed institutions where I submitted my documents and at some point a yes or no came – in other words, a kind of black box. We’ve knocked down walls and opened our doors wide. Anyone can come. We don’t just judge the becoming or not becoming of patents and trademarks. Our experts are always available for consultations at any level and at any stage an innovation is at. We help researchers, students, start-ups and companies, regardless of whether they register their IP rights with us or not.

What will be important in the future?

Karepova: Extremely important for our clients, but also for the entire Austrian innovation system, is the ‘life after’ – that is, life after the patent. I have a patent – now what? How do I bring my prototype to market? How do I create successful technology transfer? How can I find and acquire important, useful technologies from other market participants? What do patents have to do in open networks? And quite banal, but very important: How much is my patent actually worth? These topics are relatively new to the business of patent offices, but we want to deal with them more in the future.

Women and patents, is that still an odd pair?

Karepova: Yes, we still have a gender problem when it comes to patenting. Women are named as inventors in only seven percent of patent applications at the Austrian Patent Office. That is very few and that has not changed over the years, unfortunately. We do not have the complete picture, as we are not obliged to name male or female inventors in a patent application, but this is the case in about 60 percent of the patent applications in which inventors were named.

The reasons are factual, psychological and socio-political: women often shy away from actively claiming something for themselves in their professional lives; they are less likely to be entrepreneurs and they are often intimidated by great role models.

The patent is a myth in itself: the great, famous inventors, mostly men, tend to scare women away. They are quicker to take themselves out of the game. Many think: I’m no Einstein, no Newton, no Marie Curie, to name a female inventor. Even when women have something clever in their hands, they hesitate and don’t even have it tested. We see this, for example, in the Patent Cheques: a vanishing share comes from women. When it comes to finding out whether a patent might be involved, men come to us, not women.

Another reason: patents are mainly created in projects, in networks. We have observed that the larger and more developed the networks in companies are, the fewer women are mentioned in the patents.

Of course, there are also more objective reasons: Austria’s economy is based primarily on very male-heavy industries – this is reflected in patents: In short, we have a lot of mechanical engineering, a sector in which a lot of men are active, and less biotechnology or organic chemistry, where the share of women is much higher.

Almost more important than role models is the environment. The patent world is a man’s world – there are hardly any female patent attorneys, hardly any female patent engineers, hardly any female lawyers. At our patent office, we are already at 50/50 overall and we are proud of that. In patent examination, however, there are only 24 percent women – that’s much better than usual in the world of patents, but nowhere near where we should be.