The task of gaining and then maintaining a Patent is both laborious and expensive: many companies have given up this effort, or at least only use external expertise when necessary for the ideas seen at the time as their most important innovations. Many times the real value of an idea will only become obvious many years later.
Patents protect unique ideas for new product developments: but Patents also have another use, as a defensive statement of the company knowledge base at a certain point in time. Both aspects are quoted by Endress+Hauser as the reason they encourage R&D engineers to file for patents. Angelika Andres is a physicist and patent lawyer who heads the 20-strong patent department of the Group, tasked to assess and process all invention disclosures: she comments that “We strongly encourage our employees to register their ideas as soon as possible and without any reservation.” A total of 236 new patent applications were made in 2013, six more than the previous year: Germany and the European Union, the USA and China are the main countries where E+H patents are listed. Of 720 employees who work in research and development, 365, or over half of them, were involved in filing an initial patent application last year. These inventors were honoured at the annual “Innovator’s Meeting, in Freiburg, Germany, earlier this year, and are pictured below. Prizes were awarded for patents that are seen to be of particular economic significance for the company.
“We operate in an intensively competitive industry,” states Michael Ziesemer, coo of the Endress+Hauser Group. “Our advantage is secured by innovative products – and in turn we can safeguard these innovations by protecting them with patents at a very early stage.” Ziesemer has no problem with the Euro5m ($7m) invested every year in this protection of their intellectual property.
70% of patents ‘not used’
As patents become older, the higher the maintenance fees become, so the patent portfolio is regularly reviewed, keeping an eye on markets of decreasing importance. Only about a third of patents are actually ever used: but even the ‘unused’ patents have an economic weight, providing at times a protective wall around the business, and used “in order to stave off attacks from competitors”. Ziesemer explains that from time to time competitors believe that their industrial property rights have been infringed. “A large patent portfolio acts as a protective shield.” The more patents a company can throw into the balance, the better the prospects in a dispute. “Our patents are our insurance.”
A wireless example
Michael Ziesemer cites the recent developments in wireless technology to provide a significant example here. “The peak time for patents was ten years ago. If we hadn’t patented technologies and the corresponding software and hardware back then, we would have to pay license fees today and would only be able to supply our sensors as components.” Instead, today Endress+Hauser is a successful system supplier in the field of wireless solutions. This also shows that how innovative a new invention really is and what advantages it can offer customers often only becomes obvious after many years.