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Ian Shanks: Scientist awarded £2m compensation decades after he invented diabetes test

Professor Shanks built his first prototype in 1982, using plastic film and glass slides from his daughter's toy microscope kit and bulldog clips to hold it together

Sam Tobin
Thursday 24 October 2019 00:48 BST
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A scientist who nearly 40 years ago invented pioneering technology to test blood sugar levels has been awarded £2m in compensation by the UK’s highest court.

Professor Ian Shanks, 71, developed a new system for measuring the concentration of glucose in blood and other liquids while working for a subsidiary of multinational giant Unilever in Bedfordshire in the 1980s.

Using plastic film and glass slides from his daughter’s toy microscope kit and bulldog clips to hold it together, in 1982 Prof Shanks built the first prototype of what is now known as the electrochemical capillary fill device (ECFD).

His ECFD technology eventually appeared in most glucose testing products, many of which are used by diabetics to monitor their condition.

Prof Shanks first applied for compensation in 2006 and lost every step of the way in his 13-year legal battle.

But, giving judgment on Tuesday, the Supreme Court in London unanimously ruled in Prof Shanks’ favour, finding that his invention had provided his former employer with an “outstanding benefit” for which he should receive compensation.

Lord Kitchin said the rewards Unilever enjoyed “were substantial and significant, were generated at no significant risk, reflected a very high rate of return, and stood out in comparison with the benefit Unilever derived from other patents”.

The judge said Unilever’s net benefit from the patents was around £24m, and that Prof Shanks was “entitled to a fair share of that benefit amounting to £2m”.

Outlining the background to the case, Lord Kitchin said Prof Shanks accepted that the rights to his inventions belonged to Unilever, but argued that he was still entitled to compensation.

The judge explained that Unilever did “relatively little” to develop Prof Shanks’ invention until the late Eighties, when further research into glucose testing was carried out and the company obtained additional patents.

But, he added, “the glucose testing market expanded considerably in the late 1990s and 2000s”, and biosensors incorporating Prof Shanks’ invention “played an important role in this”.

The judge stated: “Indeed, the ECFD technology eventually appeared in most glucose testing products.

“It also became apparent that, although not vital, it was a technology that most of the significant companies in the field were willing to pay millions of pounds to use.”

Prof Shanks had contended at an earlier hearing that, while Unilever ultimately received around £24m from the patents, the company could have earned royalties for “as much as one billion US dollars” had his invention been “fully exploited”.

Speaking after the ruling, Prof Shanks said he was pleased to end the “13-year slog” to get compensation, adding that it was “a lot better than the alternative” of losing and having to pay Unilever’s legal costs.

Prof Shanks told the PA news agency that the potential impact of his case for other inventors was “one of the main driving forces that saw me take this on back in 2006”.

He said that when he first applied for compensation, it was “30 years since the Patents Act was introduced (and) not a single employee inventor had actually benefited from its provisions”, which was “unacceptable”.

Prof Shanks added he took great pride in having invented something which he said has “probably affected several hundred million people” living with diabetes.

He also pointed out that, after paying his lawyer’s fees, he would likely only receive “a small fraction” of the £2 million award, but that he was “relieved” the case was over.

Press Association

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