European Inventor Award: Can a British inventor win in the 'Oscars of Innovation'?

Eurovision? Nul point. Champions League. Not a hope. But there is, says Etan Smallman, one contest the British could feasibly win this week...

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The Independent Online

The Eurovision Song Contest feels like a lifetime ago, the Champions League final has just been played and it's going to be a while before the UK has its in/out referendum on Europe. So perhaps we should cherish the celebration of Continent-wide talent taking place in Paris on Thursday.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the European Inventor Award. As usual, the ceremony will drag its 15 nominees kicking and screaming from the obscurity of their laboratories and sheds out on to the red carpet. There are three nominees in each of the five categories: Industry; Small-to-Medium-Sized Enterprises; Research; Lifetime Achievement; and Non-European Countries.

Known as the "Oscars of Innovation", the awards are organised by the European Patent Office and the contenders were chosen by a jury of experts including Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik's Cube, and Mandy Haberman, the British entrepreneur and innovator behind a range of baby-feeding devices.

The Budapest-born Professor Rubik is judging for the third time and, based on his previous experience, he insists that the stereotype of the solitary inventor can be somewhat "misleading". "It's true," he admits, "that one would expect them to be a touch anxious if made to small-talk. But at the same time, any celebration of great achievements is a joyful thing, so I expect to see bright and beaming faces at the awards ceremony." But who is likely to be beaming brightest at the end of the night?

Perhaps the biggest name among this year's nominees is in the Non-European category. Elizabeth Holmes was named by Forbes last year as the youngest self-made billionaire ever. The Stanford dropout is listed as a co-inventor on more than 270 patent applications and has amassed a personal fortune of £2.9bn. She is being recognised for her blood-testing company Theranos and its devices that can quickly perform up to 70 different tests on a single drop of blood taken from a patient's finger – at a fraction of the price of commercial labs.

British interest comes in the person of Luke Alphey, whose groundbreaking work at Oxford University and his spin-off company Oxitec has resulted in the DNA modification of mosquitoes to prevent them from reproducing. In so doing, he has created a targeted and environmentally friendly method of containing the spread of dengue fever, which infects up to 400 million people every year and kills 25,000.

Unlike the Eurovision Song Contest and Champions League football, invention is one area where Britain is still a leader in Europe; between 2013 and 2014, the UK growth in patent filings – at 4.8 per cent – was four times the European average. At a time when the science budget is not protected from cuts and the ministers in the Cabinet don't have a single science degree between them, Dr Alphey, 51, feels there is room for improvement.

"The investment in sciences is moderate," he says, "but we get far more out of it than most other countries and it has a real, positive impact on the economy. That makes it a very efficient investment of public funds. It's actually why I was rather surprised to be the only British finalist because we do so well in innovation generally."

Among the other finalists is a truly "nutty" professor, the Frenchman Michel Lescanne – who will be honoured for his "wonder product", Plumpy'Nut, a peanut paste that has transformed treatment of acute malnutrition in Africa. Hendrik Marius Jonkers, from the Netherlands, will be recognised for the marvel that is self-healing concrete, which contains bacteria that can lie dormant for up to 200 years and only begins its repair work once activated by water in the cracks.

Ludwik Leibler, from France, created vitrimers, a new class of plastics that can heal themselves when exposed to heat – potentially spelling the end of cracked mobile-phone screens and scratched car bumpers. And the Scottish-born, Australian-based Ian Frazer is nominated for his vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been used more than 125 million times in less than a decade to prevent cervical cancer.

Other contenders include the Swedish company Tobii, on the list for its retina-tracking technology – which is transforming how we use computers, how retailers analyse our shopping habits and how people with cerebral palsy or severe paralysis interact with speech-generating programmes to communicate.

And among the lifetime achievement finalists are Ivars Kalvins, of Latvia, whose Mildronate heart medication accounts for up to 0.7 per cent of all Latvian exports; and Kornelis A Schouhamer Immink, the Dutchman whose coding method for CD, DVD and Blu-ray "jump-started the digital revolution".

And if you can think of anyone more deserving than all of those fine innovators, the nominations for the 2016 awards are open now. And who knows, it could be the last time a British inventor can win in any category other than the "Non-European Countries".

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