Japan and the United States lead a small group of nations that are driving innovation in 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics, three frontier technologies that hold the potential to boost future economic growth, a biennial report from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a United Nations agency, shows.


Amid lacklustre worldwide economic growth, the World Intellectual Property Report 2015: Breakthrough Innovation and Economic Growth report shows how previous game-changing advancements — such as airplanes, antibiotics and semiconductors — sparked new business activity. The report investigates today’s promising breakthrough innovations, while urging governments and business to step up innovation-related investment.

“Historical technological breakthroughs have been at the root of long-lasting expansions in economic output,” said Francis Gurry, WIPO director general. “Successful innovation, at the company level or across the wider economy, requires perseverance, particularly in periods of anemic growth when innovation budgets are under pressure. We need to reinforce the environments that give rise to the breakthrough technologies of tomorrow.”

Patents in 2015

China has made a concerted effort to increase patenting activity in the past decade but its international patent filings provides a better measure of its impact.

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system is administered by WIPO and it provides a common standard for filing in 148 states.

Huawei Technologies of China remained the top PCT applicant in 2015, with 3,898 applications published, followed by Qualcomm of the US, in second position, with 2,442 applications published. ZTE Corporation of China and Mitsubishi Electric of Japan retained their third and fifth positions, respectively. The only change among the top five PCT applicants related to Samsung Electronics of Korea, which advanced seven places to rank in fourth position.

The US, with 57,385 international patent applications, remains the largest user of the PCT, despite an annual fall of 6.7% in 2015 — likely due to an unusually large number of filings in 2014 that was linked to changes in the US patent system.[1]

The US is followed by Japan (44,235 PCT filings) and China (29,846). Overall, growth in filings was driven by China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). As a result, Asia has more than doubled its share of all PCT applications filed since 2005 and now accounts for 43% of the total.

Germany experienced slight growth of 0.5% in 2015, with 18,072 applications filed in 2015. From 1990 onwards, German applicants increased their filings each year until the economic downturn of 2009. Since then, German filings have not exceeded their 2008 level. Applications from Korea rose by 11.5% in 2015 to reach 14,626.

Among the top 15 origins, sizeable growth was registered in China (+16.8%), Korea (+11.5%), Israel (+7.4%), Switzerland (+4.4%), Japan (+4.4%) and the Netherlands (+3.6%). Like the US, Finland (-12.1%) and Canada (-7.2%) saw fewer filings than in the previous year. France had 8,476 applications and the UK had 5,313.

Switzerland had 4,280 applications; Austria was at 1,404 and Ireland was at 478 — up 4.1% on 2014. The big US-owned exporters in Ireland do not typically engage in Irish research that merits patenting while there are inputs to research elsewhere.

A resident filing refers to an application filed in the country by its own resident (individual residents, domestic and foreign-owned companies operating in a country, third level institutions and other public or private institutions); whereas a non-resident filing refers to the one filed by a foreign applicant. An abroad filing refers to an application filed by the country's resident at a foreign office.

Leaders in Breakthrough Innovation

Patent applications per million inhabitants, EuropeRelying on an original mapping of patents to fields of innovation, the WIPO report shows that Japan, the US, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) accounted for 75% or more of all-time patent filings in the areas of 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics.

Japanese companies are leading innovation in the area of robotics. Eight out of the top ten patent applicants in the area of robotics are from Japan — namely, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Denso, Hitachi, Panasonic, Yaskawa, and Sony. The two others are Bosch, from Germany, and Samsung of Korea.

While US entities file collectively for most nanotechnology patents, Samsung is the top filer and six of the top ten filers are from Japan — Nippon Steel, Toshiba, Canon, Hitachi, Panasonic and TDK. IBM, the University of California, and Hewlett Packard of the US complete the top ten list.

US entities also file for most 3D printing patents, with 3D Systems and Stratasys as the top two applicants and General Electric and United Technologies among the top ten. Three German companies — Siemens, MTU Aero Engines and EOS — as well as three Japanese companies — Mitsubishi, Hitachi, and Toshiba — complete the 3D printing top ten list.

China is the only emerging middle-income country moving closer to this group of advanced, industrialised nations.

Looking at more recent history — patents filed since 2005 — Chinese applicants account for more than a quarter of patents worldwide in the area of 3D printing and robotics — the highest share among all countries. In the case of nanotechnology, Chinese applicants make up close to 15% of filings worldwide — the third largest origin of patents. In contrast to the longer established innovating countries, Chinese patent landscapes show a markedly stronger presence of universities and public research organizations (PROs).

Successful innovation ecosystems

The report underlines the elements of successful innovation ecosystems: government funding for scientific research and support in moving promising technology from the laboratory to the production stage; competitive market forces that encourage firms to innovate, supported by vibrant financial markets and sound regulation; and fluid linkages between public and private innovation actors.

The report also documents how innovation is increasingly linked to research at universities and public research organizations. The 3D printing, nanotechnology, and robotics fields show higher shares of academic patenting compared to the three historical cases of airplanes, antibiotics and semiconductors.  Nanotechnology stands out, with academic applicants accounting for around a quarter of patenting worldwide.

Intellectual property enables vibrant technology markets

The case studies document how innovation flourished as a result of knowledge sharing mechanisms — from the first clubs of amateur airplane inventors to modern open innovation models found in 3D printing and robotics research.  By encouraging disclosure and providing a flexible tool for licensing, the IP system has facilitated the sharing of knowledge.

WIPO says the patent mappings carried out for the six case studies show that innovators have overwhelmingly sought patent protection for their inventions in high-income countries plus China, reflecting the large size of these countries’ markets, as well as the presence of competitors with frontier technological capabilities.

The report’s case studies on 3D printing, nanotechnology, and robotics conclude that the large number of patent filings in these innovation fields have yet to result in increased litigation over patents and other friction over IP rights. However, as many of the underlying technologies are still at a relatively early stage of development and have yet to see any commercialisation, conflicts surrounding IP rights may well increase in the future.

The report also says copyright is also becoming more visible and relevant for technological innovation: first with the inclusion of software as copyrightable subject matter and in the protection of any kind of digital expression, including 3D object designs and the design of computer chips.