Development of environmentally friendly technology – or green tech – has increased in many industries. Applications of green tech include reducing energy and water consumption, using recyclable/renewable materials, and increasing the lifespan of products to reduce waste, amongst many other developments.
Yet, healthcare is not readily associated with this trend. Quite the opposite—it is estimated that the healthcare sector generates about 4.4% of all greenhouse gas emissions. And as more countries continue to develop and get access to better healthcare, these emissions will likely increase.
Despite these figures, a closer look at the healthcare industry shows it is making strides in developing and using green tech as new products are using greener materials, reducing waste, and reducing energy consumption.
Green innovation in the healthcare sector
Take for example the new BlueSeal MRI released by Philips, which uses only 0.5% of the liquid helium of traditional MRIs. Helium traditionally keeps MRI magnets at necessary supercool temperatures, but helium is also a non-renewable gas that pollutes as it is extracted from the earth. A 99.5% reduction in helium use will help lower consumption of and pollution by this gas.
Another example of green tech developments in healthcare are biodegradable materials for medical implants. Biodegradable implants cover a wide array of medical applications, such as stents for cardiovascular treatments, scaffolds for holding broken bones in place and promote healing, sprayable adhesive for closing wounds, and more. Many of these implants provide the added benefit of not requiring another surgery to remove them when treatment is complete as they can safely degrade in the body.
Other examples of green tech in healthcare include using 3D printing to develop prosthetics and redesigning at-home diagnostic tests to use less materials, including plastics, all of which reduce waste.
Tracking the trajectory for green medtech innovation through IP
Green tech innovation, however, is not for the faint of heart. The 2022 World Intellectual Property Report described such efforts as “costly and risky, with . . . no guarantee of success.” Other publications mention how green tech is usually more technically complex than its non-green innovative counterparts. This makes intellectual property (IP), and the competitive protection it provides, vital to support green tech innovation.
Strong IP protects stakeholders who invest in new projects geared to produce risky, albeit environmentally friendly, products. Patents can be critically important for green tech, and the number of filed patent applications claiming environmentally friendly inventions is sometimes used as a litmus test for showing progress in using innovation to curtail climate change.
Based on that litmus test, the world appeared on its way to effectively use innovation to mitigate climate change. The total patent filings directed to green tech began to grow significantly by 2005. Unfortunately, as data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows, by 2015 it was clear that the bubble had burst on green tech patent filings. The reasons for that are highly debated, but potential culprits include various types of green tech (such as those involving energy and transportation) maturing faster than expected and continuing dependence on fossil fuels.
Even though the green tech patent filing bubble appears to have burst overall, when focusing on the healthcare sector, a clear pattern emerges: a slow but almost unwavering rise in the number of green tech patents filed from 1990 – with 100 applications – until 2015 –with 368 applications – when the IEA analysed available data. But understanding what is driving that increase is a challenge, in part because of the lack of data. Most of the available data is more than a decade old and focused on green tech generally, rather than on healthcare-specific applications. Thus, collecting and analysing additional data is important so that informed decisions can be made to effectively support green tech healthcare innovation.
What to know as a green healthcare innovator
Innovators in the healthcare sector looking to go green can still get some guidance by extrapolating from studies done on green tech and patents as a whole. For example, a report from Cambridge in 2019 revealed that patenting activity of start-ups developing green tech can surge up to 73% when they collaborate with the government. Government investment would most likely help reduce the financial risk associated with developing green tech in healthcare. As a result, innovators should not shy away from such partnerships where available.
Similarly, international agreements have led to an increase in patenting of green tech. One example is the Kyoto Protocol that went into effect in 1997. Although it expired in 2012, signatories dramatically increased the number of patent application on green tech filed while the treaty was in force.
At the national level many countries are doing their part. The United States, for example, is encouraging innovation of green tech, including those related to healthcare. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has introduced a “Climate Change Mitigation Pilot Program,” which accelerates examination of patent applications “involving technologies that mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Indeed, other top patenting countries, such as China, the UK, Japan, and many others, have enacted similar programs, providing an additional incentive to innovate in green tech.
Ultimately, social and economic forces are expected to continue applying pressure on companies for green tech. As climate change advances and essential resources become scarcer, it will be harder to avoid going green. Healthcare is no exception—it’s an area ripe for green tech disruption. It also appears, however, that public-private partnerships and government programs will be vital for this green tech healthcare disruption.
Green innovators in healthcare would benefit from thinking long-term and examining their countries of interest for upcoming programs or subsidies that would strengthen IP protections of their products. It is foreseeable that countries with more and better programs will be more amenable to green healthcare tech disruptions and innovators targeting those regions will reap the largest rewards and have the most impact curtailing climate change in the process.