The European Inventor Award Is Like Eurovision for Hot Patent Talent
Haemotologist Helen Lee with her rapid HIV testing machine. Image: EPO

The European Inventor Award Is Like Eurovision for Hot Patent Talent

Intellectual property has never been so hot.
June 14, 2016, 9:00am

"You'd have thought that attending an event celebrating patents would be akin to taking a sedative," quips one guest. But Europe's top invention convention is anything but boring.

Intellectual property has never been so sexy than at the European Inventor Award, where innovators and the patent examiners who protect their brainchildren are rock stars for the day. The awards ceremony, which took place in Lisbon last week, has been dubbed the "Oscars of Innovation" and the "Eurovision for Inventors," with European nations pitted against each other at a glitzy bash held in a different continental city every year—and with a couple of zany interval acts to boot.

It is the flagship event of the European Patent Office (EPO), a quango that employs 7,000 people and has been embroiled in a peculiar amount of publicity and controversy of late. While the inventors themselves are invariably modest to a fault, the same can't be said for the EPO's president, Benoît Battistelli, recently referred to rather scathingly as "King Battistelli" by one tech website. His face receives a whole page in the event's brochure and each year he insists on mounting the stage—with accompanying introduction from the glamorous host—for the announcement of every single category.

Benoît Batisttelli, right, presents an award to Helen Lee, centre, with politician Cecilia Wikström. Image: EPO

This year's finalists included the French inventor of a "pacemaker for Parkinson's", a Danish team whose ammonia cubes can turn toxic diesel fumes into water, and a Dutchman whose electronic stability control system is described as the most important car safety innovation since the seatbelt.

Putting the grandstanding to one side, anyone would struggle not to be moved by the stories behind the inventions celebrated at the awards, and the impact they could have. Here are some that most caught my eye.

An HIV Test for the Developing World

Cambridge scientist Helen Lee collected the Popular Prize—the only one voted for by the public—for her instant HIV testing machine called "Samba," which is the size of a coffee machine and produces results that are as simple to read as a pregnancy test. It requires no trained personnel or clinical infrastructure and delivers diagnoses within a matter of minutes, so patients in developing countries can start receiving treatment at their very first appointment.

The SAMBA HIV testing machine includes everything needed to give a result in a matter of hours. Image: EPO

The haematologist told me of a picture she treasures, which was passed on to her from Malawi. It shows a woman who had just discovered via the Samba test that her treatment for HIV had been effective. "Her face lit up," said Lee. "I don't know her name. I probably will never find her. But that image will stay with me."

Lee refused to describe herself as an inventor. When the word accidentally slipped out, she parenthesised it in air quotes.

"I think about all the inventions there are and it's hard for me to see how ours is that exceptional," she said. "It is not in the first class of invention like Edison with electricity. I'm not being falsely modest. It's really A–, B+."

Gluten-Like Gluten-Free Food

Italian nominees Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi were also motivated by a sense of public duty and personal fulfilment for their very different invention. They patented a method for extracting gluten-like proteins from corn to mimic the spongy texture of bread while manufacturing suitable-for-coeliac food substitutes.

Virna Cerne. Image: EPO

"I was looking for a scientific issue, but it should be something that could be practical at the same time," said Polenghi. "In the 'without gluten' world, it is very interesting because you can also do something for someone else who needs your help in some way."

She and her colleague are both capitalising on their love of cooking to create what they call "the next generation of gluten-free bread"—complete with authentic taste, texture, and smell —that should hopefully hit shelves within five years.

Paper Microchips

I found the Portuguese finalists, Elvira Fortunato and Rodrigo Martins, each trying to persuade the other to do the talking as I sat down to quiz them. The husband-and-wife team pioneered paper microchips that are far cheaper and more eco-friendly than traditional silicon versions. They are paving the way for plane tickets, food labels and business cards that can update themselves.

Elvira Fortunato and Rodrigo Martins. Image: EPO

I asked Martins where he got the initial idea. "You have read Harry Potter?" he replied. "Harry Potter was the beginning." The inventor was referring to the interactive Daily Prophet newspaper from JK Rowling's books; this is a scientific power couple who are just as likely to be found talking about fantasy books and sci-fi films as metallurgical silicon and inorganic oxides.

"The best thing that we have, above all, is our imagination," enthused Martins. "People don't like to hear this because it is like sacrilege. Everything is made by the book. No. For science, imagination sometimes is much better than knowledge."

Fortunato, a Jules Verne enthusiast, fanned herself with a piece of paper as her husband explained what the material's future holds. "You will have paper walls! You can change the colour of your wall. You can interact with your paper. When you are fed up of the paper, you can tear it down and put a new one. So in the future, you will not use paper for books, but you will use paper walls! The screens will be the surfaces. This will take five or ten years but it will be a reality."

Cancer drug innovation

American Robert Langer, winner in the "Non-European Countries" category, was arguably the biggest name at this year's awards. The most-cited engineer in history, who has contributed to 1,100 patents licensed to more than 300 companies, Langer was honoured for creating a whole new approach to fighting cancer by encapsulating targeted drugs within biodegradable plastics.

Robert Langer. Image: EPO

"It has been estimated that products coming out from our patents or the publications from our lab have helped some two billion people worldwide," he said matter-of-factly.

Talking to me over video-link from MIT moments after his victory is declared, he bristled slightly when I asked if we were in the "age of the geek," an era when engineers and inventors were finally getting the adulation they deserve.

"Well, I hear that. But, you know, most of the people I know who invent things are not what I call geeks. I think they're regular people," he said. But, in terms of the public response, he added: "I wish the public had more appreciation for scientists and inventors. I think in the US, the people that get the most recognition are movie stars and athletes."

In this regard, President Battistelli perhaps deserves credit for at least bestowing some glory and red carpet glamour upon the all-too-often overlooked heroes of our age.