By CPA Global News ‑ January 20, 2021
By Dupre-la-Tour Stéphane, Gregoire Sandra, Lucidarme Thierry, and Olivier Fabien at EDF Lab Saclay-France
For any company or organisation which has a focus on R&D, Intellectual Property (IP) plays an important role in strengthening its position in the global scientific field. Analysing the evolution of filed patents for a given technology can help provide a greater understanding of that technology’s maturity as far as R&D is concerned, providing the opportunity to secure a competitive advantage.
Using IP intelligence and data in collaboration with CPA Global, part of Clarivate, we have conducted a study focused on photovoltaic solar cell technologies, deriving three main findings:
Our research also raised some key, though speculative, questions, from the technological and geographical concentration related to disruptive innovation.
Today, decisive and effective IP management is a key priority for organizations where R&D plays an important role. Researchers and patent attorneys need to strike the balance between having the best protection for a given invention and the cost the company will have to endure for its protection. While filing a patent is relatively straightforward, effective monitoring and protection is more intricate, raising a number of questions, including, for example: whether the study, protection or industrialization of a particular technology is concentrated in a certain country, and if the technology is still early in its development or close to maturity. These are the kind of factors that, for innovators and IP lawyers, may determine whether or not to keep a patent alive.
The present study aims to demonstrate the value of seeking to answer such questions by conducting statistical analysis to infer global findings and help to drive some of the related development strategy of the technology under review and to anticipate future trends.
The work presented below has been drawn from the IP department of “Electricité De France” (EDF) using CPA Global’s, part of Clarivate, IP software application “Innography”. Finally, this study is based, as a case study example, on the scientific area of photovoltaic (PV) cells within which EDF has developed significant expertise.1. Establishing the drivers behind a reduction of filed and published PV applications in the last decade.
First, the study has focused on the evolution of patent applications concerning all the technologies of photovoltaic cells provided by the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) in its Y02E classification. The results, presented in Figure 1 below, are striking.
Firstly, a trend in patent filing emerges with a high point of filed patents in the years 2010 to 2012 and a decrease in applications since 2013.
Secondly, as shown in Figure 1, every category of PV cell patent was impacted by this decrease. For instance, Silicon-based cells are gradually beginning to decrease in distribution. Other technologies like CIGS or III-V type cells, which were presented as promising a few years ago, have almost vanished. This phenomenon can undoubtedly be linked with the costs of production for this type of cell, which became more expensive than silicon-based cells after 2013.
Figure 1 Evolution of patent applications concerning photovoltaic cells per year
In all, over a period of eight years between 2010 and 2018 the amount of applications fell by more than 95%.
2. Trends point towards a significant reduction of diversity in the technologies covered by patent applications.
From our findings, we determined that all categories of PV cells are experiencing a decrease (as outlined in part 1) in patent applications. This extends even to the most recent technology – organic cells – which are the most recent development in the field of photovoltaic cells.
Furthermore, another striking phenomenon is the fact that all published patents focus narrowly on a very limited number of technologies.
Perovskite solar cells are the most recent and promising photovoltaic technology, with global research focusing heavily on this technology. However, the relative growth of patents related to this technology is significant but still comparatively moderate.
Overall, the apparent number and diversity of patent applications has significantly dropped when compared to previous years.
What can we interpret from this? Does it reflect a need for new disruptive scientific breakthroughs in these fields? Are we reaching some maturity in other parts of the sector, like for silicon technology, which seems to be more focused now on cost production than innovation?
3. A shift of the geographical center for patent applications.
One way in which to ascertain where the geographical center for PV patent applications lies is to correlate the IP landscape with the classical NREL scheme, which reflects cell efficiency trends over time. The yield progressions are nonlinear, meaning it is therefore logical to assume that the highest number of filings occur within emerging technologies. This is shown in the high rate of growth in sections of the technological field such as organic cell and perovskites.
Knowing and understanding where patent filing hot spots are located for a given technology is paramount to understanding its viability and the business case for filing.
At the beginning of the 2000s, Japan and the US were the main countries for patent applications in photovoltaic cells as Figure 2 shows. As noted above, a peak in worldwide applications occurred in 2010 but also led to a decline in filings in these established markets. The geographical spread of patents shifted first to South-Korea then to China, which remains the top jurisdiction in which patents are filed in the PV field today.
Figure 2 Evolution of patent applications concerning photovoltaic cells per year of priority and country of first filing
4. China as the top country for photovoltaic cells patent applications.
The Chinese upsurge as shown on Figure 2 is notable. In the past, China relied on patents from the West – particularly from Europe and the US. However, over time, the country decided to centralize its scientific knowledge and technological know-how in an effort to curb its dependency on patents from other countries. To do this, the state invested in important financial, human and material resources and collaborated with its numerous universities, institutes and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).
Since then, 5-year plans have been the road map for China, meaning that every five years, scientific projects are reviewed to gauge whether the studied technologies are promising. Two 5-year plans have been in place, one from 2009 to 2014 and the other starting in 2015.
First and foremost, the aim of Chinese IP is to protect its national interest first. Chinese patents are virtually never extended, as Figure 3 shows. This could be linked with the fact that many Chinese universities and institutes are filing a low number of patents. In this context, scientific teams from all over the country are motivated by the impetus implemented by the Chinese government and, thus, patent applications with first filing are only done primarily to show commitment to the local market only, which can consequently call into question the quality of Chinese patents.
Figure 3 Chinese extensions for patents concerning photovoltaic cells in 2008 (left) and in 2016 (right)
5. A growing interest in PV modules.
This study is only based on solar cells technologies, however, further analysis has shown that patents concerning PV modules and related technologies did not suffer from the observed decrease seen in figures 1. and 2. In fact, PV module patents seems to make up a major part of potential future patent applications regarding the field of photovoltaics, although all research efforts do not seem to have quantitatively shifted from cells to modules or systems.
This is shown in Figure 4 with the technologies of encapsulation and interconnection.
Figure 4 Patent applications evolution concerning cells encapsulation (left) and cells interconnection (right), per year of priority and country of first filing
By using Innography for this study, we have been able to assess trends concerning photovoltaic cells with a worldwide outlook. As we have seen, there are now far less patent applications regarding PV cells filed when compared with the volumes of 2010-2013. Meanwhile, we found that patented PV technologies are becoming more concentrated as the market matures – with APAC, particularly China, now seeming to set the agenda concerning patent filing.
The presented work is far from being comprehensive and analyzing patent portfolios is difficult and complex. The intricacies of the IP field can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, requiring real know-how and cooperation between IP and scientific experts. However, we believe this form of patent research, deriving insight from ‘big data’ sources, is a highly valuable methodology for companies working in specific technological fields to establish their own IP strategy.
 NB: Year 2019 is not complete because of the delay of patent publication which occurs 18 months after the first filing.