As the owner of a wax-making company, Günter Hufschmid never expected to be at the forefront of a technological breakthrough. His Bavarian firm, DEUREX, produces wax for the paint and varnish industry, a field not exactly known for being on the cutting edge of chemistry. But one day in 2010, one of his employees confused the dials for pressure and temperature, and overnight the machine spat out 10 tons of white cotton that turned out to have miraculous properties in the fight against oil spills: one kilogram of the cotton can absorb 6 kilograms of oil floating on water.
Aware that he had chanced upon the invention of a lifetime, Mr. Hufschmid wrote to the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich to register his patent. It seemed like the most reasonable choice for a small business rather than hiring expensive patent lawyers. Nobody at the EPO called him back, but the bureaucrats did reject his application twice. So Mr. Hufschmid made a nuisance of himself and insisted on presenting his cotton in person. After more than three years, he was finally given a date in a branch office in The Hague. The 20-minute demonstration went well. But that was only the beginning of his troubles.
Mr. Hufschmid got his patent from the EPO, but it is not valid throughout Europe. What representatives of the institution failed to mention was that he would still have to apply for patents separately in each member state, in the local language.
More and more entrepreneurs of Germany’s small- and medium-sized Mittelstand firms are complaining that they can’t get their new discoveries patented. But those inventions are the secret behind “Made in Germany.” What’s gone wrong?