Sarah Lau of Kilburn & Strode’s Life Sciences and Chemistry Group looks at the role of interdisciplinary research in some celebrated inventions, and the questions this raises for IP protection.
Nominations for the European Inventor Award 2022 are open until 1 October 2021. The awards were established in 2006 and are presented annually; after a postponement due to the pandemic in 2020, the 2021 edition took place as a virtual ceremony.
Winners of the 2022 edition will be announced in mid-2022 and will be selected in five established categories: Industry; Research; Non-EPO countries; SMEs; and Lifetime achievement. There will also be a new category: the Young Inventors prize will be presented to an innovator aged 30 or under to recognise initiatives that use technology to solve a problem within the UN Sustainable Development goals framework. The winner will receive a cash prize. (If you’re interested in nominating an inventor in any of the categories, you can find out how to do so on the European Patent Office’s website.)
The European Inventor Award was established to give inventors the recognition they deserve and incentivize further innovation. There are a number of eligibility criteria for the established awards, including that the invention be protected by a patent. The winners are decided by an independent international jury, which assesses technical originality as well as economic and social impact.
In 2021 the jury comprised 12 experts in IP, business, science, politics, media and research. It was chaired by Dr Helen Lee, who herself won the European Inventor Award 2016 in the Popular Prize category.
Inventions recognised by the European Inventor Awards over the past 15 years have spanned a wide range of fields including telecoms, nanotechnology and healthcare. However, it’s particularly striking to see how many of the recent winners and finalists work in areas that span different technical sectors.
In 2021, for example, the finalists included:
Magnetic nanoparticles to diagnose disease (Finalist, Research category): a test that can detect infectious diseases, including dengue fever, invented by Italian physicist Marco Donolato and his team at BluSense Diagnostics. The invention drew on understanding of nanoparticles and optics to develop a test that uses magnetic nanoparticles coated with antibodies and an optical reader which looks for patterns created. It can detect and quantify the amount of a virus from a single drop of blood in around 10 minutes.
Ultrasound imaging method using shear waves (Finalist, Research category): a platform that helps identify conditions such as cancer and liver disease without the need for biopsies, developed by French physicists Mathias Fink and Mickael Tanter. The inventors began investigating how shear waves could measure the maturation of camembert cheese and then realised the technology could be applied to an area of tissue for medical diagnosis. The system can capture 10,000 images per second.
DNA-based data storage (Winner, Research category): chemical engineers Robert N Grass and Wendelin Stark developed a method of data storage involving encoding digital data on to DNA strands and encapsulating them in protective glass particles. Inspired by the preservation of the DNA of fossilised creatures, they created a method of converting digital data into a sequence of DNA base pairs and encapsulating it in tiny glass particles which can keep the data secure, potentially for millennia.
Tools to cultivate microbes (Finalist, Non-EPO countries category): a device, called the iChip, that enables scientists to separate and incubate single strains of bacteria in their natural environment, leading to the discovery of potential candidates for new antibiotics. The iChip is a thumb-sized device developed by microbiologists Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein that captures single microbial cells and sustains them through exposure to nutrient-rich soil using a polycarbonate semi-permeable membrane.
Cross-sector technologies have also been recognised in previous editions of the European Inventor Award, and in other IP-related presentations, such as the DesignEuropa Awards hosted by EUIPO: at its most recent event, in 2018, the winner of the Industry Award was the Siemens Healthcare ARTIS pheno robot-supported C-arm angiography system.
Beyond traditional categories
The recognition for cross-sector technologies demonstrates the extent to which many of today’s inventions do not fit into traditional categories. Smart devices, drug discovery, autonomous vehicles and genetic analysis are just a few areas where cutting-edge research often involves the interaction between technologies such as biochemistry and materials science and artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and neural networks. Transport, agriculture, energy and construction are just a few of the industries being transformed by the digital revolution.
Perhaps the field where we see the most impact of this interdisciplinary approach is healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of mass testing and diagnosis, as well as the value of collecting data on infection rates and symptoms: apps such as the ZOE COVID Study app are used by millions of people, and patients are becoming accustomed to interacting with medical professionals remotely by messaging or video. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence systems promise to revolutionise drug discovery and development: DeepMind’s AI tool AlphaFold is expected to have predicted 130 million protein structures by the end of this year, for example.
Besides healthcare, interdisciplinary research promises to deliver huge progress in tackling some of the biggest challenges the world is facing, such as sustainable transport and the climate emergency (see “Climate tech and cross-sector collaborations key to the net-zero transition”). However, it also poses challenges for patent protection. Drafting watertight applications increasingly requires understanding the latest research across multiple technologies. While many patent attorneys have considerable experience in their own particular areas of expertise, few can claim knowledge of multiple technologies. And different technologies also raise distinct patenting issues, whether related to differing patentability requirements in different jurisdictions, sufficiency, inventive step or indeed the fundamental question of whether to file a patent application or keep your invention confidential and protect it as a trade secret.
That means that having interdisciplinary teams of attorneys is vital. Working closely together, they can effectively advise clients on freedom to operate and patent filing strategy. Building a truly multi-disciplinary team in-house is a challenge for many companies, but firms such as Kilburn & Strode have a wide range of expertise, and our attorneys frequently collaborate across technical boundaries. For example, our specialists in molecular biology work alongside experts in artificial intelligence on patent applications relating to bioinformatics and digital health, to ensure that all aspects of the invention are captured and that the patent application is in the best possible shape for worldwide prosecution.
An accelerating trend
It will be exciting to see the details of the finalists and winners of the European Inventor Award 2022. Whoever they are, it’s likely there will be some cross-sector inventions among them. This is a research trend that is only likely to accelerate.
Are you an inventor or do you work with inventors? If you would like to discuss this article in more detail or to learn how a patent attorney can help you protect your invention, don't hesitate to contact Sarah.