30 Sep
2015

Industry report -

Prosthetics: the next IP battleground?

Co-published

The concept of improving people’s lives using artificial limbs is as honourable as it is old (prosthetics have been around since the ancient Egyptians substituted missing toes with wooden replicas). Up until the latter part of the 20th century, prosthetics were essentially static limbs; but more recently prosthetic limbs – and joints especially – saw tremendous innovation and a surge in the number of companies entering the market. Add to that recent advances in materials science (eg, carbon) and electronics, and the prosthetics market is undergoing another change.

Figure 1 shows patenting happening over a long period of time, with a surge since 2000.

Source: Cipher, Thomson Reuters

As always, necessity is the mother of invention. With a large number of wars fought in recent decades, one of the many unfortunate side effects has been a surge in the number of disabled former soldiers (an ageing and increasingly overweight population is also contributing to this growth). Many armies, as well as being centres for excellence in electronics and materials science, have prioritised the care of soldiers, which in turn has led to the development of interesting technology. This has also helped to pave the way for prosthetics as a feasible, cost-effective solution for many, leading to a number of innovative small companies entering the space. More recently – with materials, software and electronics becoming the key elements of prosthetics – there has also been a move away from traditional medical doctor-based companies or research institutes to more high-tech driven ventures. With such substantial research requirements and an expensive end product, the need for IP protection is clear. This industry typically relies heavily on mergers and acquisitions, as well as venture capital, and for smaller companies this translates into intellectual property becoming their bargaining chip.

A mixture of technologies is always a hotbed for intellectual property, especially if elements of electronics are involved. Pharmaceuticals, telecoms and electronics are usually what come to mind when thinking about high-value IP sectors; however, the medical device and surgery area is characterised by intense activity and litigation, and has seen some of the largest settlements in history. Organisations in this area are not typically the subject of non-practising entity litigation; instead, there are (expensive and strategically important) head-to-head battles between competitors (see Table 1). This is another reason for smaller companies needing intellectual property to defend themselves, and as they grow the hunted may indeed become the hunter (a Cipher snapshot looking at litigation activities of billion-dollar start-ups (so-called 'unicorns') shows that as they grow, they start litigating against their peers).

Table 1 – Patent litigation within prosthetics

Plaintiff

Defendant

Start date

End date

Status

Thermo-Ply, Inc

Ohio Willow Wood

21/04/2005

28/04/2014

Settled

DJ Orthopedics LLC

Generation II

16/08/2005

18/01/2007

Settled

Molnlycke Health Care

Medline Industries, Inc

28/04/2006

17/09/2008

Settled

Steven Maynard

Hanger P&O

25/09/2006

15/11/2007

Settled

ALPS South

Ohio Willow Wood

13/11/2007

03/12/2008

Settled

ALPS South

Ohio Willow Wood

23/09/2008

-

Active

ALPS South

Ohio Willow Wood

03/03/2009

-

Active

Bulldog Tools, Inc

Prosthetic Design

12/11/2009

10/02/2010

Settled

ALPS South

Ohio Willow Wood

13/11/2009

-

Active

iWalk /MIT

iWalk, Incl v Ossur HF

03/05/2012

12/09/2013

Settled

Ossur

iWalk

03/05/2012

12/09/2013

Settled

Ossur

iWalk Inc

15/06/2012

13/09/2013

Settled

Otto Bock

Ossur

12/06/2013

21/07/2014

Settled

Ossur

Otto Bock

12/06/2013

21/07/2014

Settled

Thermo-Ply, Inc

Ohio Willow Wood

30/10/2013

17/06/2014

Settled

Freedom Innovations

Blatchford

25/06/2014

-

Active

Freedom Innovations

Blatchford

25/06/2014

15/10/2014

Other

Source: Cipher

Figure 2 drills down further into the field of prosthetics, examining some of the most well-known players and uncovering what is driving this surge. A couple of companies have exhibited tremendous growth in recent years, most of which primarily focus on exoskeletons (eg, wearable suits or walking assists). The largest portfolios are held by bionics companies (eg, prosthetics with microprocessors, also known as robotic prostheses) and the big incumbent orthopaedics/joint companies (eg, knee and hip replacements). There is also a clear difference in growth between incumbents in orthopaedics/joints and bionics, with bionics still exhibiting double-digit growth.

Source: Cipher and Thomson Reuters

As the area of fastest growth, is the exoskeleton sector full of small companies working on innovative new solutions? Figure 3 plots the largest patent owners and the most active companies. This field has attracted activity from universities and Honda is the leader in the field (the legacy from its Asimo project). However, other companies and universities/research institutes are the leaders in terms of growth.

Source: Cipher and Thomson Reuters

With universities and companies spread around the world, it might be imagined that they have broad geographical profiles. However, most protection is sought in the United States, as seen in Figure 4.

Source: Cipher

So what are the predictions? It appears that advances in electronics and robotics will lead to further innovations and advances in prosthetics and bionics – it could be argued that they already have. So in this area too, there is no immunity from IP wars. The market is currently valued at $20 billion and the potential for man and machine has never been greater.

For further information please contact:

Marcus Malek
Aistemos
View website

This is a co-published article whose content has not been commissioned or written by the IAM editorial team, but which has been proofed and edited to run in accordance with the IAM style guide.