Neuralink - Exploring the patent strategy of a high growth Medical Technology Startup
Neuralink - Exploring the patent strategy of a high growth Medical Technology Startup
In the 2022 Patent Index of the European Patent Office Medical Technology takes up a solid second place after the Digital Communication technology field. The top 3 applicants list names as Johnson & Johnson, Philips and Medtronic. In other words, large, established multinational companies. The European patent landscape of Medical Technology in 2022 is further dominated by US and EP companies.
At the same time headlines are being made by exciting new medical technology startups. Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, aims to make groundbreaking brain-computer interface technologies a reality. Let’s have a look at the patent portfolio of such a high growth Medical Technology Startup. Are they able to successfully imprint their cutting-edge footprint on this patent landscape?
Neuralink Patent Portfolio Overview
The entire patent portfolio of Neuralink can be found here on espacenet, the patent search platform providing free access to millions of patent documents. At the time of writing of this article about 24 patent families appeared in the result list. The oldest patent family originated in March 2018. The most recent patent family was initially filed in December 2021. It should be noted that it typically takes about 1,5 years for patent applications to publish. Neuralink could thus have filed more patent applications after December 2021 which are not yet publicly available.
The mission of Neuralink reads “Create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.” When exploring their website, it is clear Neuralink currently puts the spotlight on these three technological domains:
- The brain computer user interface
- The implant
- The surgical robot
We’ll walk through their patent portfolio to see how their patent landscape matches these technology domains.
1. The brain computer user interface
One of the most recent neuralink events showcased the brain computer user interface of neuralink, and at the time of writing this is also the first feature that is prominently presented on their website.
This is also represented in their most recent patent family which currently comprises a swiftly granted US patent relating to a Brain-machine interface (BMI) with user interface (UI) aware controller with dating from 2021.
2. The implant
The most extensive part of the patent portfolio is directed to the implant itself. There are patent families related to the following aspects of the implant:
- Signal processing
- A cell-based interface
2.1 The Implant – Hardware
The patent portfolio comprises four patent families related to the enclosure of the implantable device.
Three patent families date from 2021 and are focussed on different aspects of the packaging:
Each of these patent families comprises a single US patent application.
|Polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE) polymer enclosure for an implantable device
|Polymer enclosure with wire passthrough for implantable device
|High density neural implant cylindrical packaging
One patent family dates back to 2019 and relates to a monolithic, biocompatible feedthrough for hermetically sealed electronics and methods of manufacture.
This patent family comprises patent applications in Europe, Japan, Korea, and further a granted US patent.
Looking into the status of the European patent application of this 2019 patent family, the chances of a positive outcome are high. The Examiner notes the claims are novel and inventive over the prior art, but some objections of a more formal nature remain. One objection relates to extension of subject matter under Art. 123(2), which in simple terms means that one cannot change the patent application in such a way that it makes use of concepts, or combinations of concepts, which are not disclosed in the patent application as filed. Another objection relates to a lack of clarity under Art. 84. In the case of this European patent application, this objection resulted from the fact that the Examiner was of the opinion that not all essential features were listed in one of the independent claims. Both these objections seem easily resolvable by minor amendments to the claims which were filed in April 2023.
2.2 The Implant – Electronics
Three patent families related to the electronics of the implant date back to 2021:
- Two patent families comprise a US patent application related to wireless charging technology: Capacitive shield for charger artifact reduction for implants and Thin-foil self-resonant wireless power coil.
- One patent family comprises a granted US patent related to wireless communication technology: AC-coupled communication encoding for zero DC offset
|Capacitive shield for charger artifact reduction for implants
|Thin-foil self-resonant wireless power coil
|AC-coupled communication encoding for zero DC offset
Two patent families date back to 2019:
- One patent family comprises patent applications in Europe, Japan, Korea, and further a granted US patent, and relates to a sandwich assembly scheme for thin film electrode array and integrated circuits on both sides of printed circuit board (PCB) and method of manufacture.
- The other patent family comprises a US patent application and an international patent application which both seem abandoned at the time of writing, and which relate to a brain implant with subcutaneous wireless relay and external wearable communication and power device
|Sandwich assembly scheme for thin film electrode array and integrated circuits on both sides of printed circuit board (PCB) and method of manufacture
|Brain implant with subcutaneous wireless relay and external wearable communication and power device
Looking into the status of the European patent application for the sandwich assembly, there has recently been issued a European Search Report in which it is indicated that the patent application comprises multiple inventions and of which only a first one will be examined now. Further objections related to novelty and inventive step with respect to several known systems disclosed in prior art documents were also put forward by the Examiner of the European Patent Office, next to objections of a more formal nature such as clarity of the claims. There is now a deadline set for April 2024 for Neuralink to reply to these objections.
2.3 The Implant - Signal processing
One patent family dating from 2019 relates to Real-time neural spike detection and comprises patent applications in Australia, Europe and the US. Granted patents were already obtained in Canada, Japan and Korea.
When looking at the status of the European patent application, also here the European examination is still in its initial stages. A European Search Report has been issued in 2023 to which Neuralink needs to reply in January 2024 to continue the examination procedure. The Examiner acknowledges that the current independent claim is new with respect to the prior art that was identified in the search report. At this point in time however, the Examiner is not convinced that the difference over the known solutions involves an inventive step. Further, a more formal objection with respect to clarity of the claims was issued.
Another patent family dates from 2018 and relates to a Network-on-chip for neurological data . The patent family comprises three granted US patents.
2.4 The Implant – Electrodes
A patent family dating from 2018 relates to the Electrode fabrication and design comprising patent applications in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea and the US.
2.5 The implant – other
Two patent families dating from 2021 relate to a cell-based brain machine interface. The first patent family comprises only a publication of an international patent application. The second patent family comprises only a publication of a US patent application.
2.6 The Implant - Production
Three patent families dating from 2021 relate to the production of the implant:
- A first family relates to a Soak tester apparatus and comprises a granted US patent.
- A second one relates to an In vitro neural implant tester with hardware-in-the-loop simulation and comprises a US patent application.
- A third one relates to Glass welding through non-flat surface.
|Soak tester apparatus
|In vitro neural implant tester with hardware-in-the-loop simulation
|Glass welding through non-flat surface
3. The Surgical Robot
The surgical robot was already part of the patent portfolio from the outset in 2018 and remains a subject of further development with patent families dating from 2019 and 2021. Four patent families are identified relating to the hardware of the surgical robot, as well as to two patent families relating to its vision system.
3.1 The Surgical Robot – Hardware
A first patent family dating from 2021 relates to Automatic Craniotomy and Bonework Via Milling, Force Sensing, and Impedance Sensing and comprises a US patent application.
A second patent family dating from 2021 relates to a pivoting surgical implant placement tool and also comprises a US patent application.
A patent family dating from 2019 relates to the laser drilling of pia mater and already comprises a granted US patent.
A patent family dating back to 2018 relates to device implantation using a cartridge and comprises patent applications in Australia, Europe, Korea and the US. Granted patents were already obtained in Canada, Japan and the US.
When looking at the status of the European patent application chances of a successful outcome are high. In March 2022 a European Search Report was issued in which novelty of the independent claim was acknowledged, however the Examiner objected to the main claim based on a lack of inventive step. The Examiner did acknowledge inventive step for one of the fallback positions defined in dependent claim 5. Further objections relating to some claims comprising surgical steps were raised by the Examiner. Such surgical methods are not patentable in Europe in order not to hinder any medical practitioner during the process of performing a surgical method. Devices, such as the surgical robot, are not subjected to this exception though as any risks related to patent rights can be mitigated before the performance of the surgical method, for example at the time of the purchase of the surgical robot. In October 2022 Neuralink provided a reply to the objections in the European Search Report, in which at this point in time, Neuralink is defending an amended version which is still broader than the fallback position defined in dependent claim 5. Further in the amended claims the surgical method steps were removed. A further office action from the Examiner is now expected.
3.2 The Surgical Robot - Vision
A first patent family dates from 2019 and relates to Optical coherence tomography for robotic brain surgery comprises a patent application in Korea and granted patents in Japan and the US.
A Second patent family from 2018 relates to Computer vision techniques for the surgical robot. It comprises patent applications in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea and a granted patent in the US.
When looking at the status of the European patent application it is noted that the examination phase is already in an advanced stage. Neuralink has now amended its patent application already three times in an attempt to overcome the objections of the Examiner raised in the European search report and two subsequent office actions. The objections remaining in the 2nd office action of the Examiner also in this case related to presence of surgical method steps, which Neuralink has now addressed by removing these surgical steps. Further some formal objections relating to clarity of the claims were raised, which seemed to be resolved by minor amendments provided by Neuralink. The chances of a successful outcome are high. Even if some of the surgical method objections would not be completely resolved, with the latest amendments, further amendments would be possible, and this objection no longer affects independent claim 1 which determines the broadest scope of protection.
If you would like to receive more information or assistance do not hesitate to contact one of our IP experts or reach out to us via firstname.lastname@example.org.