European research institutes: Think tanks inventing a better tomorrow
They are developing the medicines, "green" technologies and digital gadgets of the future. They employ a host of hundreds of thousands of scientists, transforming research budgets worth billions of Euros into valuable patents and successful products.
Without a doubt, Europe's universities, technical colleges and private research institutes are international leaders when it comes to innovation. In the year 2016 alone, the European Patent Office (EPO) received some 5 000 patent applications from 870 institutions of higher education across Europe.
The growing roster of groundbreaking achievements from European research institutes also includes winners and finalists of the European Inventor Award. Here are some highlights:
Liquid wood, smashing market success
The novel bio-plastic named Arboform put Fraunhofer researchers Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele on the fast track to market success. Between 2005 and 2009, their start-up company Tecnaro was able to achieve a five-fold increase in sales, thanks to their fully biodegradable building material.
The scientific legacy continues at the Cambridge University whose alumni already include luminaries such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. With an annual budget of 4.3 billion British Pounds (2011), Cambridge is the best-funded university in all of Europe, investing a total of 650 million Pounds sterling into research every year.
At the very first edition of the European Inventor Award in the year 2006, an entry from Cambridge already advanced to become a finalist in the Research category: The ultra-thin displays based on P-OLEDs (Polymer Organic Light Emitting Diodes) patented by inventors Richard Friend, Jeremy Burroughes and Donal Bradley have started a new generation of devices on the consumer electronics market.
With an eye for market success, Cambridge professor John Daugman became a finalist for the European Inventor Award in 2009. His patented system for iris recognition relies on the pigmentation and distinct structure of a person's eye as a means of digital identification. Today, iris recognition is used by millions of travelers at airports around the globe as a secure - and fast - alternative to passport documents.
Since its founding in 1949, the German Fraunhofer Society has grown into a powerhouse among European research institutes. At more than 60 connected institutes with various scientific focal points, around 20,000 researchers are charging full-steam ahead on a research budget of more than €1.65 million per year, developing inventions for industrial companies and federal institutions.
The list of Fraunhofer winners at the European Inventor Award includes Adolf Goetzberger, decorated with the Lifetime Achievement award in 2009 for his pioneering contributions to the European solar energy field. In 1981, Goetzberger founded the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in the town of Freiburg, while laying the foundation for the rise of photovoltaics into a full-fledged industry with his patented inventions.
The digital revolution in the music business was powered by Fraunhofer researcher Karlheinz Brandenburg, whose invention - the MP3 audio file format - is now a standard in billions of computers and mobile electronic devices.
For another market success story, look no further than the "liquid wood" developed by Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technologies (ICT). Their eco-friendly bio-plastic, marketed under the name Arboform, earned the two researchers the European Inventor Award for Research in 2010.
Hardly any other European research institute maintains a more pronounced competitive edge on the international market than the German-based Max Planck Society. In 2006, the society headquartered in the town of Munich was ranked by Time Magazine as the third top international research body in the technology segment, right after AT&T and the Argonne National Laboratory.
Max Planck scientists have been known to push the boundaries of what is scientifically possible: For over 130 years, the 200-nanometre magnification limit for microscopes was considered an insurmountable barrier - until German physicist Stefan Hell at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen tackled the problem.
Hell's patent-protected invention, Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy, was a finalist for the European Inventor Award in 2008 and won the German Future Prize the same year.
Never resting on its laurels, the CNRS, which founded in 1939, continues to lead the way as one of Europe's main state-funded research agencies. Headquartered in Paris, the center employs 26,000 specialists with an annual research budget of €2.2 billion.
In addition to numerous Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics, the CNRS also counts winning a European Inventor Award among its merits. In 2012, researcher Gilles Gosselin and team developed a revolutionary drug against Hepatitis B.
Resistant to a wide number of drugs, the disease affects more than 350 million people. The patent-protected invention is regarded as one of the most effective treatments in a market for medicines against the infection worth some €1 billion.
Founded in 1425, the University of Leuven is the oldest Catholic university in the entire world. But instead of relying on tradition, Leuven has its eyes set firmly on the future, with a constant flow of breakthrough achievements in the medical field. In 2012 alone, researchers at the university in Belgium's Flanders region filed 32 patent applications with the EPO.
In 2008, Leuven professor Erik De Clercq received the European Inventor Award for his Lifetime Achievement: De Clercq's new generation of anti-viral drugs paved the way for the first successful treatments of infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
The finalists for this year's award include engineer Yves Jongen of the French-speaking Université catholique de Louvain, which split off from the University of Leuven in 1968. Jongen's cost-saving and efficient cyclotron device for treating cancers with proton radiation has already benefitted more than 21,000 patients.