Top inventors honoured at European Inventor of the Year

Medical technologies dominated the field at the European Inventor of the Year Awards, which were handed out at a ceremony in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on 6 May, the inventors of a pioneering
antiviral therapy, a new eye-scanning system and a robot surgery process were all honoured for their work, as was the team responsible for making car frames both lighter and safer.

The awards, which are run jointly by the European Commission and European Patent Office (EPO), recognise inventions which have had a significant impact on people’s lives and which have been
patented by the EPO. Winners are selected by an independent, high profile jury.

‘All winners of the European Inventor of the Year 2008 Award developed truly groundbreaking inventions,’ commented Günter Verheugen, Vice-President of the European Commission. ‘They are
evidence of Europe’s innovative strength and competitiveness.’

The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Belgian biomedical researcher Erik De Clercq of the University of Leuven, for his work on antiviral drugs for use in the treatment of diseases such as
HIV, hepatitis B and herpes. Professor De Clercq’s innovative drugs work by mimicking the shape of the building blocks of DNA. The viruses use these when replicating their own genetic material;
once incorporated, the drug blocks the reproduction of the virus.

As well as developing some of the earliest drugs to fight HIV, the Leuven team also pioneered the use of a ‘cocktail’ of up to four drugs to treat HIV; previously just one drug was used at a

The winner of the SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) Award is a Scottish team led by Douglas Anderson. When his young son went blind in one eye after an eye exam failed to pick up on a
retinal detachment in time, Mr Anderson decided to develop a way of conducting eye exams which would be both more effective and less painful for the patient.

The result is the Optos scanning laser ophthalmoscope, a device which projects a beam composed of two lasers onto the retina and manipulates it through a 200 degree scan angle. Light reflected
back from the retina is converted into a digital image. The exam takes just a quarter of a second and does not require pupil dilation, making it much more patient friendly.

The award for Non-European Inventors was also in the health field. Since the 1980s, US biomedical engineer Philip S Green of the non-profit research institute SRI International has been working
on a robotic system which allows surgeons to carry out complex procedures through incisions barely a couple of centimetres across.

Dubbed the da Vinci Surgical Robot, the system draws on advances in miniature cameras, imaging displays, robotics and remote control systems to ensure that surgeons can both see and feel what
they are doing, even though the work is actually being carried out by robotic arms bearing microtools inserted into the body through small incisions. Microprocessor chips in the tools translate
the surgeon’s commands into highly accurate, steady movements.

The one prize which did not go to the healthcare sector was the Industry Award, which was picked up by a team from German car maker Audi for the development of a lighter car frame made of
aluminium. For many years, car manufacturers favoured steel over aluminium in car frames, believing that ‘the heavier, the stronger’.

Audi started looking at ways of making their cars lighter with the aim of improving their fuel efficiency, as lighter cars use less petrol. Switching to a lighter material like aluminium was
not easy; Norbert Enning and his team had to significantly redesign the car frame to ensure that the aluminium would not bend at key weight distribution points. Their main innovation was to
create an integrated weight-bearing system in which each component of the frame plays a role.

The resulting frame was used in the Audi A8, the first mass produced car with an all-aluminium body. However, better fuel efficiency is not the only benefit conferred on cars with aluminium
frames; they also show better road handling, are easier to repair, and offer better crash protection. Furthermore, because aluminium is more pliable than steel, it provides car designers with
more opportunities to shape new and more efficient parts.

‘If we want to tackle climate change or develop new ways of treating diseases, we need a quality-oriented patent system which stimulates and sustains innovation,’ said EPO President Alison
Brimelow. ‘The IP [intellectual property] system can be a pivotal element in the efficient diffusion of cutting-edge technologies, as this year’s awards clearly demonstrate.’

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