June 21st, 2012
06:30 PM GMT
Copenhagen (CNN) - Meeting the men and women whose inventions have changed how we live our lives seems a world away from the daily bombardment of news on the state of Europe’s economy.
While the markets were reeling over Spain’s bank bailout, and trading floor chatter was Greece, Italy and what the European Central Bank can, can’t or should do, the Marketplace Europe team was at the European Inventor Awards in Copenhagen.
It was truly inspirational and refreshing to think about business without focusing on what has gone wrong, how companies are struggling and what impact this is having on the global economy.
We found the focus for Europe’s inventors is on finding new solutions, products and markets to move into, before established ones run out of steam. And they are doing it out of necessity.
Event organiser Oswald Schroeder was blunt: “If Europe does not innovate, all that will be left for our children is tourism,” he told CNN.
The European Inventor Awards were set up six years ago by the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO).
The EPO received 244,437 applications in 2011, an increase of 3.7% on the previous year. That compares with a drop of 7% in 2009 following the credit crunch.
It shows companies are investing and spending on research and development to help their companies - and ultimately the economy - grow.
Patents help inventors protect their ideas from competitors and copycats. But there's a lot of red tape and it gets expensive outside local markets. Benoit Battistelli, president of the EPO, said finalizing a harmonized, European patent process is on the agenda at the upcoming European Union Summit.
“When you look at Europe, there are no raw materials [and] we can’t compete on labour costs,” he said. “The real advantage is with innovation and for that patent is a very efficient tool.”
However, he added, “we have to improve our system on two sides, Firstly, it is too costly and a unitary patent [ones that are valid across countries] will reduce that cost by 70%. Secondly it is having a litigation system that is unified for Europe.”
Among others, we met the Australian inventors of Wifi (up for the non-European award), the Dutch team from Delft University who have made new discoveries in waste water management, the firm behind Geox, the permeable shoe that solves the problem of smelly feet, and the man who invented laser-eye surgery.
Professor Hugo Katus, from Heidelberg University in Germany, developed a ground-breaking blood test for heart attacks. He said the secret to being a successful inventor is to work as part of a team. “You have to have a really bright idea and cooperate with partners [who] support you,” he told CNN.
The laser technology Chamisa, pioneered and developed by Danish, family-run firm Widex, transformed the hearing loss industry when it first came out in the 1990s. It made hearing aids more discreet and better fitting for the clearest possible sound. Widex has been around since 1956, is the world’s 6th biggest manufacturer of hearing aids and holds more than 150 patents worldwide for up-to-the-minute ear science.
Its chief executive, Jan Topholm, told me: “To find new ways to improve hearing aids requires inventiveness - and once you invent something you need to patent it. To be inventive you have to think of something that has not been thought of before.”
He added, “We’ve much better access to things already made through the internet, it is easier to search and this is an advantage but also an obstacle because you find somebody had that thought of it before and then you have to give it up”.
Whoever has the good idea then faces the potentially frustrating process of getting the product to market.
Dr. Farouk Tedjar, President of RECUPYL, a company which extracts lithium from batteries for recycling, said he sometimes feels like he is going around in circles trying to get his business off the ground.
“You need money and people don't trust you unless you have the facility, but you can't get the facility unless you have money. But also you need the patent because that gets you recognition,” he said.
Progress is being made on a global system to handle intellectual property, which took a leap forward last September when a law was passed in the U.S.
The America Invents Act is important because the traditional “first to invent” rule in the U.S. has been replaced with the “first to file” priority which is how it works elsewhere around the world.
The European Inventor Awards go some way to recognising where Europe's strengths lie - turning inventions into economic assets which, in turn, creates jobs.