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It's the most wonderful time of the year — even for patents

Santa's getting ready to deliver presents, hopefully with this drone.

It's the most wonderful time of the year — even for patents

A 21st century Santa.

Image: USPTO

Merry Christmas and happy holidays! This week's patent roundup is a special holiday-themed edition. We're giving Big Tech the week off for the holidays and focusing on some of the zanier patents that have been granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for this joyous season. Some are tech-related, and some are just … pure Christmas.

Hopefully this Christmas Eve, as you curl up with some eggnog in one hand and your phone in the other, before you drift off to dream of sugar plum fairies, you'll find a Christmas miracle or two in here.

And remember: The companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the holidays.

Santa drone

It wouldn't be a patent roundup without some drones, even on Christmas. This patent, awarded in time for the holidays in 2017, is for a drone shaped like Santa, his sleigh and what I'm guessing is Rudolph. It's just a design patent, so we don't get any details on how this drone works, but it looks like a wonderful, Christmassy toy rather than something more Santa-sized. That'd be a great way to keep the kids believing in Santa a little longer, though, if one of those went buzzing by your window.

Santa Claus welcome kit

This seems like an amazing grift. Instead of keeping up the facade of Santa by just putting out some cookies and milk, you can use this store-bought kit! Yet more work for overstretched parents at the holidays. It comes with a diorama of a living room that the parents set up, a fake letter from Santa and a pretend boot-print to place on the floor. The kit also tells you to put the snack on the diorama, take a bite out of it after Junior has gone to bed and to fill out the letter from Santa. Seems a bit like overkill, but maybe that's just Christmas.



Santa detector

Yet another invention devised to fool children about where their presents come from: This one feels a bit … unnecessary? It's a light-up device that can hide in a stocking that parents can turn on to announce that Santa has come. The device could even possibly play a Christmas carol. But you know what would more easily tell kids Santa came? All the presents under the tree.

Christmas tree fire sensor and extinguisher

This one actually seems pretty useful, albeit very difficult to set up. Many people have unfortunately witnessed the danger of a dried-out Christmas tree sparking a house fire, and this patent builds upon past inventions to create fire detector and extinguisher systems. The homeowner would have to snake spray hoses up the length of their tree, and attach them to a box that holds a fire extinguisher and a system for communicating with emergency services if it detects fire. That could well prevent someone from losing their entire home, but would definitely require a lot of effort to get this set up (and taken down after New Year's) when you could just buy a fake tree and some pine-scented spray.

Automated Christmas tree waterer

But if you have your heart set on a real tree, this patent might help. One of the main reasons Christmas trees become so dangerous is that everyone forgets to water them after they're brought home, which dries them out, and they turn into a giant, decorated piece of kindling. This patent is for an automated tree waterer that you can just set and forget. You fill up the large water jug that's connected to the tree base, plug in the water pump and let osmosis do its job for the length of the tree's time in your house. Just don't forget to fill up the jug or it's all for naught.

There's also this patent for a similar device that will yell at you through a speaker if your tree's water level gets too low, which seems like a useful addition.

A rotating Christmas tree

You probably can't use this patent in conjunction with the last one, though. Apparently the creator of this invention didn't think the ornate decorations most people put on their trees were enough to truly celebrate the holiday. "Traditional Christmas trees are inserted in a base and cannot revolve or turn," the patent says. "Flashing of lamps alone is monotonous and lacks the effect of animation." I guess that's true, though I personally haven't ever thought, "You know what would really jazz this Christmas up? If my tree rotated on a stick like the meat at a kebab shop." But to each their own.



Electronic wreath with scent generator

Have you ever wanted to have a light-up wreath, but not wanted to deal with dead needles? This might be the solution for you: It's a patent for a wreath-shaped object with electric lights and a heating element for "volatile aromatic liquid" — basically a wreath-shaped vape for pine-scented oil. I wouldn't recommend putting any other substances in there, though.


A bauble head

"I said I wanted a bobble head for Christmas."

"Yeah, a bauble head."

"Bobble."

"Bauble?"

Maybe this is how the conversation played out that led to this fine piece of holiday headwear. Or maybe someone really just wanted a hat shaped like an ornament. Perhaps we'll never know, but I'm so glad that someone felt compelled to make this, hire lawyers and seek out a patent for it.

Christmas food

There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of patents about food items related to Christmas. A few of my favorites: Santa-shaped and candy-cane-shaped pasta (for all your Christmas-themed mac and cheese bakes); constructable reindeer pastries (I guess you bake the pieces and put them together to make Donner and Blitzen?); and this terrifying corncob thing that looks like a gaunt Santa face, for some reason:



Santa baseball cap

For when it's Christmas time, but you're still worried the sun might get in your eyes as you pick off a runner stealing second. Just don't try to wear it backwards.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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