BioWorld International Correspondent

BOSTON - European biotechnology is falling further behind its U.S. counterpart in the race to generate intellectual property, and now faces a new competitive threat from Asia, according to a study on patents and trademarks released at the BIO 2007 Convention in Boston on Monday.

Biotechnology Report 2007, by patent attorneys Marks & Clerk, showed that academic institutions are forging ahead of companies, registering 50 percent more patents between 2002 and 2006. Only one corporate entity, U.S.-based Genentech Inc., makes it into the top five patent assignees overall.

But the academic lead reflects badly on Europe, with none of its universities making it into the top 20 academic filers. The list is dominated by the U.S. institutions, with the exception of the Japan Science and Technology Agency and the University of Tokyo.

That is in spite of the EU having the highest per-capita number of science and engineering graduates in the world. The highest European entrant is the University of Oxford, in the form of Isis Innovations Ltd., with 65 patent families compared to 20th placed Harvard, which has 75.

"The academic performance from Europe reflects badly on its leading institutions, which are still failing to translate their enormous skills base into a commercial reality," said Gareth Williams, partner at Marks & Clerk.

"Although Europe is making strong advances in this area through the development of spinout companies and increased patent licensing, it needs to move from a position of growth to being a challenger on the international stage," he noted, adding, "Academic patents are very valuable and are often highly cited as they cover fundamental technologies."

In the corporate hit parade, Europe fares slightly better, with Novozymes A/S, of Lund, Denmark, coming fifth, and GlaxoSmithKline plc, of London, 17th.

The report also indicates that the industry as a whole is becoming much more mature and less speculative, focusing on specific technologies in a display of increasing commercialism. In 2002, patent activity spread across a variety of classes, and included a high level of speculative, sequence-based inventions relating to genetic engineering. By 2006, the focus of research had become much more focused, with 45 percent of patents relating to peptides, antigens, antibodies and gene therapy.

Williams believes this reflects the fact that the industry has learned its lessons, both about what is patentable and, more importantly, commercially worthwhile. "Better informed business decisions are being made," he said.

One consequence of the increased focus is that the number of biotech patents is falling, with a 55 percent drop in international patent applications from approximately 2,200 in 2002, to 1,000 in 2005.

That is partly offset by a greater number of patents being filed and granted through national patent offices.

The report also attributed a rise in patent grants to better clarity from national patent offices. Europe has benefited from this the most, seeing an increase in its patent grants by 54 percent from 2002 to 2006. That is due to the European Patent Office issuing a number of appeal decisions in recent years that have clarified the grounds for the patentability of biotechnology inventions.

The report also highlighted the emergence of eastern Asia as a major force. Filing activity in Europe is showing little growth other than from Denmark, which has trebled its filings, from 75 in 2002 to 225 in 2006. Japan is now the single largest filer outside of the U.S., with a 250 percent increase between 2002 and 2006. The report also noted the emergence of China, which has grown its patent filings from almost zero in 2002 to about 50 in 2005.

And whereas Chinese inventors historically operated outside of China, increasing alignment between China's patent filing and its inventors suggests the country is attracting back its homegrown talent. By contrast, Denmark's growth in filings is mainly attributable to a large pool of non-Danish inventors.

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