Examining innovation

Imagine an office filled with talented engineers coming from more than 30 different European countries; where details of the greatest technologies of your generation are received and discussed in depth on a daily basis, and where you gain a constant insight into the world of tomorrow several years before it arrives. Welcome, then, to the world of the European Patent Office (EPO)

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The EPO is the 2nd largest European public organization providing patent protection for up to 40 European countries. This organization plays a fundamental role in the European economy by granting patents for innovations.  By protecting new technological inventions, the EPO enables inventors and companies to be rewarded for these innovations. In 2013, 266.000 patents, coming from e.g. the US (24%), Japan (20%), Germany (12%) and China (8%), were filed at the EPO. In order to manage the growing demand for patents, the EPO employs over 4.100  patent examiners. All of them with an engineering or scientific background. This makes The EPO one of Europe’s biggest engineering employers.

Working at the European Patent Office gives you a unique window into where technology is going

Stéphan Jardon, patent examiner

“Working at the European Patent Office gives you a unique window into where technology is going,” said Stéphan Jardon, a patent examiner in the EPO’s office in The Hague who specialises in applications in the field of computer memory management.  “By looking at the patent applications we receive and the advances involved, we have an idea what will be on the market several years before it gets there. It’s a very exciting place to be.”

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Working as an examiner offers engineers the opportunity to combine their technical and scientific expertise with analytical research and the legal aspects of intellectual property. The examiner must decide if an alleged invention really is new to the public and if the application meets the quality standards for a European patent. Therefore, the engineers and scientists examine and scrutinize all applications in their specific field of expertise in great detail. They have access to the world’s largest databases of technical information, containing hundreds of millions of patents and other documents in order to find most relevant previously published technical disclosures. Based on this investigation, the patent examiner takes a decision that directly impacts the applicant and consumers. 

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To critically assess the worthiness of new patent applications, engineers and scientists receive intensive training on legal matters during their first two years at the Office. On arrival, no prior legal training is required. After a few months, thanks to their scientific knowledge and their newly gained legal skills, patent examiners are able to make important decisions themselves. “You soon develop autonomy,” said Jardon.  “However, when an application lands on your desk, you can refer to the expertise of your colleagues at any time.” This duality of working autonomously at the one hand and being a member of a team of engineers at the other is what makes this role as patent examiner so appealing. “We can refer to others’ expertise when we need to – it’s a fantastic resource to have around. There are not many places where you can work as part of such a large engineering team.”

A team to challenge your decisions

Once an application has been assessed, and any outstanding issues have been investigated and resolved, the patent may be granted – though this is not the examiners’ decision alone. “If you decide that the application should be granted then before this ruling is passed, you must convince two other examiners specialised in the same technical field that this is the right choice,” Jardon explained. “You discuss the case and then come to a decision as part of a team. You have to be able to argue your case clearly, backed up with evidence.” Accuracy is essential, as any new patent may be opposed by third parties – usually the applicant’s competitors – if they believe that it is not meeting the criteria of patentability and should not have been issued.

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The best part of my job is the opportunity to work with talented engineers  from across Europe

Stéphan Jardon, patent examiner

Highly devoted professionals

In Jardon’s view, the role of patent examiner is perfect for someone with drive and attention to detail, yet with a good sense of fairness and equity. “Despite our differing backgrounds we are all the same, in that ultimately, we are professionals, focused on quality and delivering a fair assessment for all.” A balance must be struck between what is fair amount of exclusive control over a technology for the applicant (i.e. their particular technical development), and what should be still free to use for third parties and the public (i.e. old technology already known).

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“Examiners need technical, legal and linguistic skills, as well as an ability to rapidly make a decision” he added. “They also need good drafting skills, as often they will be communicating with the applicant in written correspondence. Equally, they must be analytical. Applicants expect an objective reasoning on their decision, backed up with documents to substantiate this reasoning. In the end, companies need legal certainty about whether they can expect protection for their inventions – remember, if anyone contests the patent in the future, it may be under scrutiny by a judge in a national court.”

 What it takes to be part of the team

As might be expected for a position offering so many advantages and responsibilities, recruitment is competitive. In order to be successful, applicants must be a citizen of one of 38 member states of the European Patent Organisation and have a full university degree in physics, chemistry, engineering or natural sciences, relevant to the technical field in which they would like to work. Importantly, they must also have a good knowledge of two of the Office’s three official languages – English, French and German – with a willingness to learn the third;

A career with the EPO offers multiple advantages: “If I had to name one thing, I would say that the best part of my job is the opportunity to work with other very talented engineers from all across Europe,” Jardon said.

But of course, it is not all work – alongside such prestige and challenge, a good work & life balance, and the fun of an active social life within an international community is equally exciting.

This career with all its technical and innovative aspects is far from being out of reach. Every year, EPO is recruiting engineers and scientists all over Europe. Will you become one of them? 

What is the European Patent Office?

  • 2nd largest European public organisation
  • Patent protection for up to 40 European countries
  • Offices in Munich, The Hague, Berlin, Vienna and Brussels
  • About 6.800 employees
  • 266,000 patents were filed at the EPO in 2013, coming from e.g. the US (24%), Japan (20%),  Germany (12%) andd China (8%)
  • One of Europe’s largest employers for engineers and scientists
  • Recruiting more than 100 scientists and engineers in 2015