The European Patent Office (EPO) just announced the finalists for the 2014 European inventor of the year award. Every year, the EPO grants various awards for outstanding inventorship achievements. These awards are granted to various categories of inventors, namely large European companies, SMEs, research at university and research institutes. The EPO also awards a prize for long-term contribution of individual European inventors by way of the “Lifetime Achievement” award. Last but not least, inventions by entities which are not European nationals but who hold a European patent are awarded a prize as well.

This year’s industry finalists include a research group of Ericcson, which made a number of outstanding inventions in the field of mobile communication networks. In particular, they contributed several hundred patents to the development of LTE, which is now superseding 3G networks and leading to download and upload speeds many times greater than those achievable via past technology, thereby powering the rise of the mobile Internet economy.

As regards the SME’s finalists, a Danish company called Aquaporin made inventions in the field of energy-efficient water purification. Specifically, while the current high-tech electronics industry has developed a strong need for “ultrapure” water, conventional water filtration methods are highly energy-consuming and unsustainable. Instead, taking inspiration from naturally occurring water-purifying proteins (called aquaporins), Aquaporin’s water filters provide an energy-efficient method for supplying ultrapure water on an industrial scale.

In the area of research institutes, the finalists include DNA Electronics Ltd and Imperial College London, who invented a microchip for quick DNA testing. In fact, while understanding the complexities of the human genome used to be an effort reserved for the scientific elite, this invention – a USB stick that decodes a patient’s DNA within minutes – now makes that unique ability easily accessible to almost anyone.

The three non-European finalists are Masahiro Hara, Takayuki Nagaya, Motoaki Watabe, Tadao Nojiri, Yuji Uchiyama of Japan, who made an invention relating to the QR code, Cary L. Queen and Harold E. Selick of the USA, who made an invention in the field of humanised monoclonal antibodies for drugs, and Charles W. Hull, also of the USA, who made an invention in the area of 3D printing (stereolithography).

Finally, the finalists in the area of lifetime achievement are Med-El and ASTAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), which are active in the field of medical technology, and Fischerwerke, which operates in the field of construction.

Med-El invented a cochlear implant to restore hearing. Its multi-channel cochlear implant allows people around the world to clearly understand speech rather than only muffled sound. This invention addresses the problem of understanding speech, which requires more than just hearing it. In fact, the listener also receives information generated by the speaker’s tone of voice or inflection, and Med-El implant allows this information to be perceived by the listener as well.

ASTAR made several inventions relating to 3-D brain atlases for clinical use. In fact, the exploration of the brain enables a better understanding of brain disorders, with a view to then treating trauma and training future doctors and neuroscientists. ASTAR’s Wieslaw Nowinski invented high-resolution, 3D brain atlases which were able to significantly impact the world of brain mapping.

Fischerwerke’s Artur Fischer is an inventor on more than 1,100 patent and utility model applications. He is best known for having invented the expanding wall plug, which respresented one of his many revolutionary inventions in the field of construction.

In all cases, the EPO looks at the importance of the invention also from the viewpoint of societal and economic benefit, so as to identify inventors whose contribution is not only technical and scientific but also noteworthy in the broader sense. It will surely be exciting to find out who of all these worthy inventors will be awarded with the final prize.

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