4.3The Flemish technology position: A patent-based analysis

Julie Callaert, Xiaoyan Song, Mariëtte Du Plessis, Koenraad Debackere, Bart Van Looy.

One of the main objectives of the patenting system is to grant temporary monopoly to inventors, for incentivizing innovation, which in turns benefits technological progress and competitive advantage of organisations, regions and nations. The disclosure function in the patenting system additionally ensures that information about the patented technology is documented and becomes publicly available. Follow-up development is thereby warranted, while duplicate research & development efforts are avoided. For analysts and policy-makers, the detailed information that becomes structurally available in disclosed patents brings about a wealth of information for mapping and monitoring technological development over time and across regions. 

As a result, patents have since long become established as useful indicators of technological progress and innovation. Some caveats are to be taken into account when interpreting patent-based indicators. It should be clear that not all technological developments are patented and  that – vice versa – not all patents  reflect truly innovative developments. However, Zvi Griliches’ quote from 1990 still holds: “In this desert of data, patent statistics loom up as a mirage of wonderful plentitude and objectivity1. The wide range of econometric research proving that technology and knowledge creation are significant production factors in economic systems, provides additional support for the validity of patent-based indicators. 

This chapter relies on patent-indicators to map the topography and the evolution of the patent landscape in Flanders. We consider USPTO patent grants, EPO patent grants and applications and PCT patent applications. Allocation of patents to countries or regions is based on the presence of at least one applicant or inventor from the referred country or region.

The increasing trend that has been manifest over the past decades in Flemish patent volume, appears to be stagnating. This holds for USPTO, EPO and PCT patents. International comparison reveals that similar trends are observed in other countries. Still, since the early nineties until recent years, Flemish patent volumes have increased with a factor 2,6 (until over 260 EPO-patents per million inhabitants); causing Flanders to remain well positioned among the top IP performing regions in Europe. 

When breaking down patent activity by sector, Flanders is in a leading position in terms of academic patenting. Flemish universities have over the past decades been increasingly active in applying for patents to protect and valorize their research. This is reflected at the level of our national statistics as well, with Belgium ranked at the European top in terms of academic patenting. 

The concentration of patent activity among a few multinational companies suggests that additional attention and resources could be dedicated to other players, notably small and medium-sized enterprises. This would be an effective way to further promote the position of Flanders as a European top region.  Moreover, the specialization indicators reveal opportunities for better alignment between technological and economic performance in several domains. 

All in all, the presented statistics reveal a robust Flemish technological texture, while still leaving room for a more thorough promotion of the technological position of Flanders within and beyond Europe. 

Grilliches, Z. (1990), ‘Patent Statistics as Economic Indicators: A Survey’, Journal of Economic Literature, 28, pp. 1661-1707.