Given the commercial and legal context of patents, it can be surprisingly easy to overlook the potential significance of the scientific developments that underpin them. However, October’s announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize winners show just how important they can be.
As the European Patent Office (EPO) are very pleased to point out on their own website, two of this year’s Nobel Laureates are past finalists (though not winners) in the European Inventor Awards. Perhaps less well known and less prestigious than their Nobel counterparts, the European Inventor Awards, which are presented annually by the EPO, are awarded to inventors of granted European Patents that make “a real contribution to technological progress and economic growth and so improve people’s daily lives”.
Shuji Nakamura, a finalist in the 2007 inventor awards, shares the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contribution to the invention of blue LEDs. Other colours of LED had been available since the late 1960s, but it was not until the development of the blue LED (the last of the primary colours) in the early 1990s that the colours could be mixed to produce white light. White LEDs are now widely used for lighting and in LED displays, and are much more efficient than traditional light sources. According to Dr Frances Sanders, president of the Institute of Physics, optimal use of LED lighting could reduce cut current worldwide electricity use by up to 16 per cent. Nichia Corporation, Nakamura’s employer, was granted several European Patents to the invention (including this one).
Stefan Hell shares the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the invention of the Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscope, which has become an important tool for researching cancer and infectious disease. Traditional optical microscopes cannot resolve detail below about 200 nanometres, and electron microscopes are not always suitable for use with living cells. STED microscopes, which makes use of fluorescent markers that bind to targets molecules, has been used to resolve details at scales as low as 10 nanometres and can be used with living cells. Hell was a finalist in the 2008 Inventor Awards, and owns this patent for the technique.
While nobody would suggest that the average patented invention is a potential Nobel Prize winner, it is still interesting to see how the commercial world of patents interfaces with the world of science.