Nobel Prize 2020: A Chemistry Patent Attorney’s View

Nobel Prize 2020: A Chemistry Patent Attorney’s View

The Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature and Peace were first awarded in 1901 after being established in the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. 
As patent attorneys, it’s easy to get caught up in the legal side of inventions and scientific discoveries. At heart though, many of us joined this profession because of our passion for science - we love to learn about the biggest breakthroughs and discoveries, whether we are working on a patent for them or not.

  • Patents and the Nobel Prize

As set out in our previous article discussing whether the patent system is the best way to incentivise innovation or whether prizes such as the Nobel Prize are a greater motivator, for many scientists the patent system is a key facilitator of research as it provides a much needed return on investment (even if is not their main incentive to innovate). 
The degree to which different innovators have profited from their discoveries depends on a number of factors, one of which is whether the innovation in question is protected with a patent. Notably, Marie and Pierre Curie did not patent any inventions based on their discoveries and instead decided to share their findings with fellow researchers – Marie Curie has been quoted as saying that “Radium is an element, it belongs to the people”. By contrast, Alfred Nobel himself acquired over 300 patents before he died and, without the commercial success made possible by these patents, the Nobel Prize might not exist.
While scientists have differing opinions on whether to protect their innovations using patents, if patent protection is desired for an invention, the timing of publishing research related to that invention is critical: a patent application should be filed before the invention is made public to avoid damaging the ability to gain patent protection in most countries around the world.
The 2020 Nobel Prize announcements will take place between 5-12 October 2020 and, while we will find out the details of the winners on this date, information about the nominees, nominators, investigations and opinions related to the award of a prize are restricted for 50 years. By contrast, a patent application is published 18 months after its effective filing date and it should fully describe how to carry out the invention in question in exchange for a patent. This mode of publication can spur further innovation by providing a platform for other inventors to develop the initial invention.

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on 7 October 2020 and, as described in Nobel’s will be awarded to “the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement”
Chemistry has an interesting position in the sciences, as it provides a link between physics, which provides its theoretical foundation, and biology, where chemistry can be seen in action in living organisms. In fact, it has not been unusual in the past for the same candidate to be nominated for both chemistry and physics or chemistry and medicine. Indeed, Marie Curie was first awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and then the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.
As a result of the breadth of chemistry as a field, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for a wide variety of technical developments, most recently to John B. GoodenoughM. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” in 2019. 
In the 1970s, Stanley Whittingham developed an innovative cathode in a lithium battery made from titanium disulphide which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can house lithium ions. Then, in 1980 John Goodenough developed a lithium battery with a cathode of cobalt oxide, which provided a higher voltage than earlier batteries. In 1985, Akira Yoshino developed a battery with an anode of petroleum coke, a carbon material. As a result of these innovations, the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery was developed in 1991.This type of battery is prevalent in today’s society, finding use, for example, in mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles. As we continue to seek renewable alternatives to traditional fuel sources, batteries will be crucial in enabling the development of efficient energy storage from renewable sources. 
The number of patent applications published by the European Patent Office (EPO) that relate to battery technology has increased dramatically over the past three decades, roughly doubling each decade from 1990-2020. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 reflected the high level of activity in this technical field and the commercial success of the innovations made by John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. It will be interesting to see to what extent the winning technology this year has been protected using patents.
The EPO launched the European Inventor Award in 2006 to help give inventors the recognition they deserve and Akira Yoshino was a winner of this award in June 2019 before receiving the Nobel Prize later that year. Unfortunately, like so many other events this year, the 2020 European Inventor Award has been postposed until 2021, so no insights can be taken as to whether the winner of that award will also win a Nobel Prize this year. Speaking of this year, how soon might the European Inventor Award and/or a Nobel Prize be awarded for significant innovations relating to COVID-19?
While there has been a great deal of variety of winners in terms of the nature of the chemical innovation, the same cannot be said for the sex of the winners. Of the 183 individuals who have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry up to 2019, only 5 are women: Marie Curie (1911), Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964), Ada Yonath (2009) and Frances H. Arnold (2018). We hope this figure increases this year and we look forward to seeing how the worldwide gender gap in named inventors may change over the coming years, as highlighted in our previous article.
Stay tuned for a discussion of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 
For more information or advice, please contact Jessica Smart or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.

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