ERC Report on How Frontier Research Encourages Patented Inventions

Report shows over 40% of ERC-funded projects generated research subsequently cited in patents and how curiosity-driven frontier research enables technological development.

A new European Research Council (ERC) report attempts to answer the question how and to what extent the discoveries described by ERC grantees in scientific publications inspired new technologies presented in patent applications, which were filed by firms and institutions all over the world.

The report is based on data retrieved from 6,671 ERC-funded projects from all scientific domains, including all projects funded from 2007 until 2014 (FP7 and part of Horizon 2020). It shows that ERC-funded projects generated considerable influence upon patentable technologies. More than four out of ten ERC projects generated research that was subsequently cited in patent applications. It also supports previous findings regarding a positive relationship between scientific impact (as measured by the number of citations received in peer-reviewed publications) and technological impact (as captured by patent-to-paper citations).

The majority of cited publications from ERC-funded research were related to FP7 grants: more than half (52%) of these projects were cited by at least one patent application (compared to 28.7% of H2020 projects). The findings confirm the fact that it usually takes time for science to influence technology and promote innovation.

ERC projects in life sciences were most likely to exert influence on patents (61% of life science projects are cited in patent applications), followed by projects in physical sciences and engineering (46%). Given the technical nature of the knowledge embedded in patented inventions, the share of projects in social sciences and humanities cited in patents was considerably low (7%).

Patents with links to ERC-funded research are focused on certain technology fields closer to the science frontier and in areas where industry has a greater science-based R&D orientation:

  • Biotechnology.
  • Pharmaceuticals.
  • Computer technology.
  • Organic fine chemistry.
  • Measurement.
  • Semiconductors.

These accounted for 68.2% of the total patent citations received.

The qualitative analyses of projects whose publications were highly cited in patent documents identified areas where the knowledge stemming from ERC-funded research was particularly valuable for inspiring subsequent technological developments:

  • Image recognition technologies.
  • Graphene applications.
  • Solar cell technologies.
  • Applications of microRNAs.
  • Immunotherapy treatments.
  • Stem cell technologies.

The study found evidence that patent citations to ERC-funded research often flow across technological fields, confirming the assumption of widespread diffusion of frontier research results. Projects in physical sciences and engineering especially had interdisciplinary impact on patents across technology domains. While the majority of the patents citing ERC-funded publications (around 50%) are owned by private companies, a significant share of these patents are still owned (or co-owned) by universities and research organisations. This is in contrast to the ownership pattern of self-reported patents that shows universities (48%) and research institutes (23%) playing a dominant role as applicants, with firms being the owner or co-owner of self-reported patents in 15% of cases.

The study also shows a positive impact of ERC-funded research on technological fields whose development is crucial for tackling climate change and making the most of the digital transformation. In the domain of climate change mitigation and adaptation technologies, the study documents a prevalence of patents in the areas of ‘Reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, related to energy generation, transmission or distribution’ and ‘Technologies for adaptation to climate change’. Using the classification of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) patents developed by the European Patent Office, there is a significant specialisation of ERC-linked patents in the fields of ‘Data Management’, ‘Smart Health’ and ‘Connectivity’.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “Innovation requires ground-breaking ideas from great minds – and there is now even stronger evidence about it. With Horizon Europe we have stepped up investments to frontier research through the European research Council – a world-reference funding organisation. We must continue doing so in the years to come, building Europe’s scientific excellence and delivering concrete results to society and the economy.”

President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin added: “Policy-makers need to understand the importance of frontier research for innovation. Researchers funded by the European Research Council are not ivory tower academics. They have founded hundreds of companies, and applied for impressive numbers of patents, trademarks and other intellectual property rights.”