25 Mar
2021

The outlook

Europe clearly remains a relevant market for global R&D investment but is facing stiff competition from both east and west. The rise of AI activity in Asia is a wake-up call for Europe if it wants to remain relevant in new technological fields. In addition, there is a discernible trend of start-ups from Europe being acquired by players from the United States, including Apple’s purchase of Finnish sleep-tracking hardware and software start-up Beddit.

Apple came to prominence as a consumer electronics firm but is now starting to encroach in areas such as healthcare, leveraging its capabilities in AI, processing and access to consumer data. What is more, its rumoured play in the electric car segment is notable. Similarly, Alphabet is asserting itself through services and products relating to Google Cloud, internet searching and browsers, fintech, smartphone operating systems, smart home, healthcare and autonomous cars.

The same is true of China’s tech giants, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, whose presence is being felt across the ecosystem. These firms are already creating a buzz in fintech, e-commerce, AI, blockchain, browsers, social media platforms and shared mobility, while new entrants such as Ping An Technology have been filing patents around AI, blockchain and cloud computing. The bottom line is that these companies are investing in cutting-edge technologies and making a name for themselves around the globe.

Europe currently enjoys an enviable knowledge base and a steady stream of start-ups. However, acquisitions of these give the purchasing country a technology advantage, which could affect overall European competitiveness. Table 1 sets out some notable M&As that have happened in recent years.

Table 1. Recent US and Chinese acquisitions of European entities

AcquirerAcquiredSector
Midea (China)Kuka (Germany)Robotics and automation (manufacturing)
Alibaba (China)Data Artisans (Germany)Specialises in data streaming services
Geely Holding Group (China)Volvo (Sweden)Automotive (previously owned by Ford)

China National Chemical Corporation (China)

Pirelli (Italy)Tires
Syngenta (Switzerland)Agrochemical

Apple (United States)

Spektral (Denmark)Computer vision and machine learning
Shazam (United Kingdom pre-Brexit)Audio recognition platform
Dialog Semiconductor (United Kingdom)Power management chip business
Beddit (Finland)Sleep-tracking hardware and software
SensoMotoric Instruments (Germany)Eye tracking for AR/VR
Regaind (France)AI for images/photos

Facebook (United States)

Fayteq (Germany)AI for object tracking - AR/VR
Bloomsbury AI (United Kingdom pre-Brexit)NLP and AI
BeatGames (Czech Republic)VR games
ProtoGeo Oy (Finland)Fitness app maker
PlayGiga (Spain)Cloud gaming
Sofa (Netherlands)Software design
Zurich Eye (Switzerland)AR/VR

Alphabet (United States)

AIMatter (Belarus)AI platform to detect and process images on smartphones
Limes Audio (SE)Technology for improved voice communications
GraphicsFuzz (UK pre-Brexit)Mobile graphics benchmarking tools
Nightcorn (Germany)Video sharing
PayPal (United States)iZettle (SE)Fintech
Microsoft (United States)Donya Labs (Sweden)Automatic 3D-optimisation tools
Amazon (United States)Goo Technologies (Sweden)AR/VR

Snap (United States)

Zenly (France)Social mapping app
Strong.codes (Switzerland)Tools to protect against reverse-engineering code
Oracle (United States)Wercker (Netherlands)Automate code testing and deployment
Gilead Lifesciences (United States)MYR Pharma (Germany)Biotech - hepatitis

As well as ramping up its overseas acquisitions in recent years, China has also increased R&D investments and established partnerships through various channels. Looking at the data, it is clear that Europe stands to lose under pressure from both directions unless innovation policies are revisited and strengthened.

While a steady stream of smaller businesses for overseas buyers to acquire may point to a relatively healthy start-up landscape in some European countries, the continent’s position could be strengthened further by having local players emerge as credible rivals to the Big Tech incumbents (ie, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon). This could be achieved through revising foreign investment policies and ramping up investments across sectors that are booming and that benefit from heavy investment in R&D.

To quote Joseph Strauss, a professor of IP law and former director of the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property: “Europe must do a better job of protecting intellectual property arising from publicly funded research and come up with more incentives for knowledge transfer, if it is to achieve its ambitious goals in global innovation.”

Methodology

Dolcera analysed only active published and granted documents for the current study. It also includes design, utility and plant patents. The data analysed for this report is until 31 December 2020. To compile the ranking of the top 100, we took patents granted by EPO member states and by individual patent offices in Europe, including those that are not EPO members. We then reduced those publications to common priority so that we were, in effect, counting families of European assets. Where the same patent has been filed and granted in multiple European countries, we only counted it once.

The assignees have been normalised (including re-assignments) using Dolcera’s AI-based patent search tool PCS. The resulting actionable corporate data set was mapped to the respective regional headquarters to deliver strategic insights. The insights have been derived by leveraging PCS to identify key strategic technology trends across various domains based on the patent filing activity of the top 100 patent filers in the region.

 

The authors would like to thank Sateesh Thipirisetty, Janani J and Cheruku Ravi for their work collating the data for the report.