Fostering future inventors in Japan

August 2010

Invention contests for young students are commonplace worldwide, but when Tadashi Inoue, Dean and Executive Manager for Human Resources Development at the National Center for Industrial Property Information and Training (INPIT), spoke of his organization’s “Patent Contest” during a presentation at the WIPO High-Level Forum held in Tokyo in March 2010, he piqued the interest of participants from all corners of the world. Given the interest in this initiative, WIPO’s Japan Office interviewed Mr. Inoue and his team to get a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the history and development of this interesting outreach project.

Engaging teachers

In 1999, INPIT published a standard textbook on industrial property rights for use in Japanese high schools. It promoted use of the textbook at teaching conferences around the country and offered suggestions on how it could be used to integrate concepts of intellectual property (IP) into teaching curricula. Despite these efforts, the teaching of IP remained limited. There was a clear need to identify incentives to encourage teachers to engage with IP in their classrooms. Inspired by the “ROBOCON” contest, in which robots created by teams of undergraduate students compete to complete a specific task quickly and accurately, it was decided to develop and organize a Patent Contest.

"Patent your inspirations!" a
poster for the Patent Contest

Following a trial run in 2002, the Patent Contest was officially launched in 2003 and has since become an annual event. The main objective of the contest is to raise awareness about IP and to increase understanding of the IP system among students specializing in science and technology at high schools, national colleges of technology and universities. The contest provides hands-on experience in the process of applying for a patent and practical experience in creating, protecting and commercializing IP. This is in line with the Intellectual Property Strategic Program formulated by Japan’s Intellectual Property Strategy Headquarters and revised in 2009 by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to include IP in the national curriculum.

Strong partnerships: a key to success

From 2003 to 2006, the Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation (JIII) acted as the Secretariat for the contest. INPIT took over this role in 2007 and is now responsible for managing, coordinating, promoting and running the contest with an annual budget of approximately 11 million Japanese yen (approximately CHF 130,000). INPIT’s work is actively supported by a number of partners, namely, MEXT, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the Japan Patent Agency Association (JPAA). Some 20 staff members drawn from across the participating organizations make up the “Patent Contest Promoters Liaison Council” which meets five times a year to ensure that each stage of the contest is smoothly coordinated.

MEXT provides the link with educational institutions and assists in promoting the contest in schools nationwide. Teachers play a key role in encouraging the creativity of their students and in promoting understanding of the patent system. Winning students tend to have supportive teachers who are enthusiastic about including IP in the curriculum. As a consequence, the Secretariat is seeking to increase the IP awareness of teachers by actively promoting the Patent Contest across Japan’s education community.

To enter the contest, students must have an invention, conduct a prior-art search using the Industrial Property Digital Library (IPDL)1 and submit an application with a description of the invention, technical specifications, drawings (or prototype) and a list of the prior art. INPIT provides a series of relevant guides on inventing, conducting a prior-art search and preparing an application. These can be used by teachers to support those students entering the contest.

The applications submitted are screened to narrow down the list of candidates. The short-listed applications are then examined by a selection board of 11 specialists. The key criteria for selection are the creativity (novelty) and industrial applicability of the inventions. These criteria are consistently applied throughout the screening process, although the final selection also takes into consideration the quality of the prior-art search conducted by the students.

A winning formula

From 2003 to 2009, the number of applications submitted to the Patent Contest increased five-fold, rising from 56 to 262. A total of 1,302 applications have been submitted since 2003. Nearly 60 percent of these originated from high school students, 19 percent from universities and 21 percent from national colleges of technology. Ninety-four of the award-winning applications were submitted by groups of co-inventors.

Winners receive financial support to file patent applications for their inventions (in their own name). This includes free consultations with patent attorneys, payment of the filing fee (by JPAA), and an exemption (based on the Patent Act) from the patent examination and maintenance fees for the first three years (if the patent is granted).

Patents have been granted for some 50 inventions submitted by winners who went on to file patent applications. As inventions are not disclosed in the screening/selection processes, inventors of non-winning entries can decide to pursue the patenting process at their own cost.

Success is infectious

The success of the Patent Contest has spawned a similar initiative for industrial designs. INPIT’s “Industrial Design Contest” was launched in 2009 and is open to a wide range of students (not only those specializing in science and technology as for the Patent Contest). It aims to increase interest in, and understanding of, the process of creating industrial designs. Before entering this contest, students must acquire a better understanding of the industrial design system by attending a seminar, watching relevant video content and/or reading a standard textbook on the industrial design system.

The first Industrial Design Contest in 2009 attracted 90 applications from which 27 winning designs were selected. At least one of the winning entries was filed by a high school student and is expected to be commercialized.


Future challenges

Rocket separation / discharge mechanism: award winning entry of the Patent Contest 2008. A patent was successfully granted in the Spring of 2009 (No. JP4291409).

An interesting aspect of the Patent Contest is that the specialists who conduct the first screening of applications offer written comments for each entry. This ensures that even unsuccessful candidates learn from their experience and gain insights into why their invention did not meet the criteria of novelty and industrial applicability. It also offers them an opportunity to correct faults or avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

The success of the Patent Contest and the increasing number of entries submitted, however, means the workload has increased significantly. This presents the organizers with quite a challenge given the limited resources available.

The organizers face an additional challenge relating to the geographical concentration of applications. The bulk of these entries comes from the Kyushu district in southern Japan, largely, it is thought, because schoolteachers in this district have a strong interest in the patent system and have actively encouraged their students to participate.

The organizers are determined to increase the number of entries from other regions, including the Tokyo metropolitan area. This will involve a range of awareness-raising activities to further publicize the contest and to promote understanding of the IP system among teachers and students across Japan.

In spite of these challenges, it is clear that these inspiring initiatives are playing a key role in boosting understanding of the use and benefits of the IP system among the next generation of Japanese innovators.


1 IPDL is a free online-service providing access to the JPO’s IP Gazettes

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