Applause for Europe's Top Inventors

The European Inventor of the Year awards honor the makers of the best patented inventions in research and industry. The recognition may be the push they need

When Douglas Anderson's 5-year-old son went blind in one eye in 1992 because of a detached retina, Anderson sprang into action. Although his son had received regular eye care, the discomfort of having his pupils dilated prevented the child's doctor from conducting thorough exams. Anderson, who holds an engineering degree, immediately took the problem back to his firm, Edinburgh-based Crombie Anderson, and founded a spin-off called Optos (OPTS.L). The result: a laser ophthalmoscope that images 82% of the retina in a single scan, and without pupil dilation.

Anderson and his collaborators, Robert Henderson and Roger Lucas, are among the European innovators being honored at the third annual European Inventor of the Year awards on May 6 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Sponsored by the European Patent Office and the European Commission, the awards highlight three inventions and their makers in four categories: industry, small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and research, lifetime achievement, and non-European countries.

The prize—purely symbolic, with no remuneration—recognizes inventors whose ideas have contributed to technological and economic development, particularly in Europe. This year's nominees include the team of designers at Audi (VOWG.DE) who created the world's first fully aluminum automobile frame, researchers at Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk (NVO) who invented slow-releasing insulin that helps diabetes patients reduce their weight as well as their risk of hypoglycemia, and a German wind-energy expert who patented an anti-corrosion system for offshore wind farms.

Best Inventions of a Decade

With the U.S. luring away European scientists disillusioned by the Continent's seniority system—scientists tend to be promoted according to their age, not their performance—the Inventor of the Year competition serves to publicize the value of science to business professionals and the public, says Kastytis Gecas, director of the Lithuanian Innovation Center in Vilnius and one of a dozen judges of the competition.

The awards highlight the best innovations during a decade, so this year inventions patented between 1993 and 2002 were up for a prize. About 4,000 patent specialists across Europe made recommendations to the jury, whose members hail from around the world, including China and India. They then selected their three favorites in each category.

Europe's Fear of Failure

Innovations addressing health-care issues swayed jury member Nani Beccalli-Falco, chief executive of GE International (GE), the most. "Me being a 58-year-old man, I'm particularly sensitive to these sorts of things," he says. But despite the impressive advances made by his fellow Europeans, Beccalli-Falco feels they are not moving fast enough. Part of the problem is financing: The majority of the European Union's budget is dedicated to agricultural programs, and venture capital is not nearly as plentiful on the Continent as in the U.S. That fact, he says, is partly due to Europe's fear of failure.

"In Silicon Valley, you fail once, you try a second time," Beccalli-Falco says. "You fail here in Europe, it's an absolute shame, and you can't show your face anymore."

Luckily, increasing competition from China and India is spurring Europe to action. Between these growing powerhouses and longtime competition from the U.S., "if Europe doesn't wake up, it's going to be squeezed between these two economies," Becalli-Falco says. Maybe the rivalry will produce some compelling future contenders for Inventor of the Year.

For a look at the six inventions recognized in the categories of industry and SMEs/research, click here.

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