The number of patents being filed in Switzerland is falling steadily, but that does not mean innovation is dying.
Some of the latest Swiss inventions were on show at the just-concluded Geneva International Inventions Fair, alongside those from some 38 countries. The homegrown creations cover a bewildering range of human activity, from fashion to civil engineering, from information technology to food.
But those who exhibited in Geneva were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovation in Switzerland. Most were private individuals or small companies, categories that only make up around a third of patent applicants.
Many novelties are produced in the research laboratories of big companies and kept secret until they are ready to hit the market.
"Coming to Geneva gives small inventors the opportunity to get financial support and information, to exchange ideas and to commercialise their inventions," says Andreas Kurt, head of the patent division at the Swiss Federal Institute for Intellectual Property.
The big companies do not need such support. Most have their own patent divisions and a tried and tested method of bringing their products to the consumer.
Browsing around the Inventions Fair, one is struck by large number of inventors from Eastern European countries like Romania, Croatia and Russia, and Asian states like Malaysia and Taiwan. Most of these creators have the backing of government institutes, whereas in Europe, many inventors remain independent.
The Swiss inventors may include start-ups like the Lausanne-based Cryptme, which has come up with a smart password protector, but equally there are people like Geneva stonemason Daniel Schmid - inventor of a safe device for opening oyster shells - for whom inventing is a hobby.
But increasingly these inventors are realising the worth of their products on the international stage.
"The number of national patents, at least for Switzerland, is falling steadily, as a result of globalisation. More and more companies - and even small inventors - are patenting on an international level," Kurt says.
Traditionally, an inventor would first apply for a national patent before seeking protection abroad. But increasingly, Swiss inventors large and small are going directly to the European Patent Office in Munich.
Twenty years ago, up to 12,000 patent applications were made in Switzerland every year. That figure has now fallen to some 2,500, but the Swiss Institute, a founding member of the European Patent Office, believes it is a positive development.
"We're happy to see this. It's important to have a patent and trademarks system that is international, to give Swiss inventors access to many markets by filling in one form," Kurt told swissinfo. As a result his office is receiving more and more request for protection in Switzerland from foreign companies.
No longer having to handle so many patent requests, the Swiss Institute can now offer other services. It can investigate the 40 million patents worldwide, and make this information available to Swiss inventors.
"This allows them to be more innovative and avoid spending money creating something that already exists," Kurt says, pointing out that most patents are free for use, the annuity payments not having been kept up to date.
"This kind of information is nowadays more important than the patent itself," he adds.
The Swiss inventions being exhibited in Geneva range from the worthy - an environmentally friendly and cheap method of producing drinking water for developing countries - to the bizarre - underpants with a zip-fastener - to the creative - photosensitive enamel tiles.
Predicting which will be a sure fire commercial success is impossible, since so many factors come into play.
"The market has to be ready for it. But the best invention is worthless if you haven't got the know-how to market it," Kurt says. "Sometimes very stupid products become worldwide successes, selling millions of units, whereas many perfect inventions will never be sold."
by Roy Probert