Some of Europe’s most successful inventors were celebrated in Munich, Germany, on 18 April, when the ‘European Inventor of the Year Awards’ were handed out for the second time. The architects of biodegradable plastics, revolutionary sensor technology, drugs to treat HIV and treatments for autoimmune diseases took to the stage to collect their awards.
‘The inventors we are honouring not only have outstanding creative achievements to their names, but have also highlighted the usefulness of patent protection for inventions,’ said Alain Pompidou, President of the European Patent Office (EPO), who attended the ceremony along with European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen.
‘All of today’s award winners came up with pioneering inventions which are evidence of Europe’s innovative strength, which is the basis of Europe’s competitiveness,’ said Mr Verheugen.
The lifetime achievement award went to Professor Marc Feldmann of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London, UK. He was recognised for his identification of the role of cytokines in treatment for autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The treatment of diseases depends upon understanding the molecular basis of the disease, Prof Feldmann explained to CORDIS News. A great deal of progress was made in this field in the 1970s, but Prof Feldmann, together with his colleague Sir Ravinder Maini, were curious as to why in 10% of the population, the immune system attacks a person’s own cells instead of an infection from which they are suffering.
Focusing on rheumatoid arthritis, Prof Feldman studied disease tissue from joints. He identified that a short range of proteins, known as cytokines, were responsible for the condition, and that when one of these proteins in particular was blocked, the condition improved significantly.
The research has led to many patents, the last of which was filed in 1997. More importantly, the research has brought about treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis. Several million people have received these treatments, and seen their conditions improved.
While Prof Feldman made his discoveries in Europe, much of the financial benefit from them has been seen in other continents. ‘At the time European companies were reluctant to get involved,’ said Professor Feldman. They had not yet understood the importance of taking risks, and what they can lead to,’ he said.
On collecting his award, Prof Feldmann underlined the sheer volume of resources needed to make Europe competitive. ‘If we want our economy to become technology-led or knowledge-led, current research investment is insufficient,’ he said.
The UK is fortunate in that it has a large charity sector that supplements government funding for research. Without this support from charity, his research would not have been possible, said Professor Feldmann. He called upon the rest of Europe to learn from this model.
The European Inventor of the Year Award for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) went to Catia Bastioli and her team from the Italian company Novamont. Dr Bastioli revolutionised waste management with her invention of biodegradable plastics obtained from starch, a renewable raw material. Products based on this technology are now on the market worldwide.
The research began in 1989, but at the time there was no market for the materials being created by Dr Bastioli and her team. Since then, biodegradable rubbish bags, low-rolling resistance tyres and biodegradable films for protecting crops are all in use. ‘We created a market, and today we are a profitable reality,’ Dr Bastioli told CORDIS News.
Today the company employs 128 people, some 30% of whom work in research, reported a turnover of €41.2 million in 2006, and saw growth of more than 20% between 2006 and 2007. The company started as a research centre, and has kept hold of that centre. It has also developed a training centre, and has hosted 81 young researchers in recent years. The company is also currently working to involve more farmers in its research.
Dr Bastioli is reluctant to spend too much time talking about SMEs, saying that her company sees its SME status as a transition phase. ‘We wanted to be innovative as it was a way to create an SME. Now we want to create a bigger enterprise,’ she said.
The award was described by Dr Bastioli as ‘very important’. ‘When we started, many people thought we were crazy. We were isolated […]. The recognition is very important.’ She welcomed the recognition from the EPO and the European Commission that environmental innovation is now seen as something that could enhance Europe’s competitiveness.
The winners of the industry award were Franz Lärmer and Andrea Urban of Robert Bosch in Stuttgart, Germany. They were recognised for the Bosch process, which used plasma technology to revolutionise sensor technology and made possible such inventions as the airbag.
The technology was patented in 1993, and first marketed by Bosch in the form of the airbag in 1997. The sensors are also used in other applications, including mobile phones and laptop computers.
The recipients of this year’s award for non-European inventors went to Joseph Vacca and Bruce Dorsey from Merck Research Laboratories in the US. It was their invention of Crixivan, a protease inhibitor that has revolutionised HIV treatment, which attracted the attention of the panel of judges.
Available on the market since 1996, Crixivan stops the virus spreading by inhibiting the activity of protease, an enzyme used by viruses to cleave nascent proteins for new virons. The drug reduces the viral load in a patient with HIV and thus prevents the virus developing into AIDS.
A jury of international experts selected this year’s winners from a list of nominees submitted by the EPO’s patent examiners.
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Subject Index: Environmental Protection; Innovation, Technology Transfer; Medicine, Health; Scientific Research