Patently doing better

So productive were the world’s inventors that the number of patent applications rose by nearly 3 percent on 2012 to a new annual record

Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Gregory Hollings. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.

Who says mankind is becoming less creative, let alone that science is in decline as the number of new engineering and technology graduates falters. New data from the European Patent Office, a key agency for registering new scientific ideas, shows the pace of innovation actually climbed last year.

So productive were the world’s inventors that the number of patent applications rose by nearly 3 percent on 2012 to a new annual record. And while Asia showed the strongest growth, patent filings from Europe – the continent often derided by critics for its allegedly creeping decline in science and technology – remained stable.

The statistics also make fascinating reading on a national, as well as regional, level. Demonstrating size doesn’t necessarily matter in science, the data highlight the resourcefulness of some smaller, albeit wealthier countries. Within Europe, relatively small but science-friendly Switzerland filed the most applications per million inhabitants. The country of bridges, tunnels and dams, also known for its hallowed scientific seats of learning like Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), filed 832 patents per million people. That was more than twice the number for second-ranking Sweden (402), Finland (360) or Denmark and the Netherlands (347 apiece). By way of comparison, technology mad Japan scored just 177, while South Korea, a country noted for its growing prowess in electronics and telecommunications in particular, managed just 129 filings per million inhabitant- the same as the average for the 28 member European Union.

The surprisingly high tally for Switzerland (population barely 8 million) was not just a reflection of its world-class seats of learning, but also the disproportionately large number of multinational companies that have their headquarters there. While some may chose Swiss domicile for tax reasons, most also operate significant research and development facilities.

Surprisingly, Switzerland’s busiest corporate patent filers were not from pharmaceuticals (this is, after all, the country that discovered Valium, LSD and a host of more recent life preservers) or from those clever clogs at Nestlé, founder, among many other things, of the Nespresso coffee capsule.

Actually, the accolade for top patent filer went to ABB. Of Switzerland’s nearly 6,700 applications filed last year, more than 450 came from the leading electrical engineering group – ahead, for example, of pharma powerhouse Roche and even Nestlé.

ABB invests about $1.5bn a year researching into everything from more efficient motors and sensors to measurement products for space satellites. Last year brought welcome outside recognition, with the prestigious MIT Technology Review and Thomson Reuters recognising the company as one of the world’s foremost innovators.

Of course, as a true multinational that also builds on local expertise, not all of ABB’s technologists are based in Switzerland. The group has research and development operations in more than 30 countries, with some 8,500 technology specialists among its ranks. While much of their work involves esoteric power electronics and secure software, a lot has practical purposes for the layman: take ultra-fast chargers for electric cars that may become ever more common; or even faster “flash-charging” tech for the latest generation electric buses.

One job, of course, of big technology companies, as well as producing innovative technology and making money, is to popularise science and technology for younger minds – whether talented graduates, aspiring high school students or relative youngsters who have barely started to think about a future career. Making science sexy is surely one of the responsibilities of leading technology groups, rather than leaving all such duties to governments and educators.

Image credit: **RCB** under a CC license via Flickr

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Gregory Hollings

Working every day to produce stories that highlight ABB's innovations!
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