Winning ideas on offer
Aude de Clercq, Secretary to ESA Patents Group
ESA currently has about 150 inventions to its name, protected by some 450 patents across different countries – with 300 patents granted and 150 patent applications still under examination. We file patents to protect our programmes and European industry, to give them the opportunity to exploit these innovations freely, without any potential blocking by competitors.
The ESA portfolio is usable free of charge for space purposes by industry within ESA Member States, as a way to help companies boost their competitiveness. Or else they can enable cross-licensing, where different companies cooperate by exchanging intellectual property.
Many inventions results from ESA space and R&D programmes, but contracts out this work to European industry. When they devise the resulting inventions then the contracting companies get the resulting intellectual property rights. Therefore most of the IP resulting from ESA’s activities is not owned by ESA.
Other entities, by contrast, take a different approach: to compare to the French CEA national R&D organisation, they have around 4000 patent families. But even so, ESA engineers play an active role in their projects, applying their knowledge and expertise so that they often end up in participating in the invention process – to an extent that really shows the value of our people. In such cases ESA is the owner of the invention.
ESA’s Patents Group, managed through the Agency’s Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Office, aims to encourage industry to make use of these assets. We have an online catalogue to help promote them, and work closely with TTP’s network of technology transfer brokers, focused on finding terrestrial uses for space technologies.
As examples of ESA patents that industry have adopted, we have the DVB-S2 standard for the transmission and reception of broadcasting data, the timing function devised by ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy and integrated into the Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 watch and the mm-wave scanner for airport body scans.
ESA’s Patents Group meets up four to five times a year, typically to discuss five or six new inventions each time, meeting up with new inventors and consulting with ESA technology experts as peer reviewers on updating the portfolio accordingly. Or maybe there are some inventions in there that we can abandon our patents on, for instance if they’ve been superseded by other approaches or no picked up by industry.
My own academic background was in law, and then I wanted to have experience in an international organisation, and my law professor recommended I working as a stagiaire at ESA. That marked my first involvement with ESA, looking into legal aspects of the Agency’s intellectual property rights.
I then got hired by a start-up called Histar, harnessing satellite data to try and develop an early warning system for malaria, which was supported here in the Noordwijk incubator. It’s quite a common approach now, but this was more than ten years ago. Once that project was finished I was looking for a job, and got hired by the the Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Office based on my legal background.
This work involved helping to establish the national business incubation centres, supporting start-ups, following the network of brokers throughout our member states, reporting to our delegates and tackling questions related to intellectual property.
That led in turn to increasing involvement with the Patents Group, we got more involved on the commercialisation side, and promoting the patents as available. The Programme took over management of the Patents Group in 2014 and I became in charge of the Secretariat for the ESA Patents Group.
Our job is to make sure as many people as possible know that what we have is available for them to use. A lot of times the inventors themselves make the best ambassadors: Jean-François Clervoy went door to door with his invention, to speak with manufacturers. The inventors know the strengths of their inventions and where they could be applied – we try to involve them as much as we can.
Last update: 18 October 2017