9 March 2020
What do DNA replication, bioplastics, reinforced concrete and video streaming all have in common? Women are leading inventors in these areas. To mark International Women's Day, the EPO looks back at women whose ground-breaking inventions keep us healthy, create jobs, have become drivers of the economy and even push the boundaries of innovation. Since 2006, the Office has honoured many such women at the annual European Inventor Award.
The science community reveres Margarita Salas for inventing a fast, accurate and reliable method of replicating DNA, thereby enabling full genomic testing. Her contribution to science, however, extends far beyond her invention that is today used in widely in oncology, forensics and archaeology. She established Spain's first molecular genetics research group, and despite financial limitations and gender prejudice, moulded her team into a world-class and highly profitable public research centre. Salas also inspired generations of young women to consider careers in science: "When I started my PhD in 1961 there were almost no women doing research in Spain. Nowadays there are more women than men starting a PhD in our laboratories."
Margarita Salas passed away late in 2019, but her legacy serves as a poignant reminder of the power of a single individual to change the world for the better.
Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge of current times, and as climate concerns often conflict with economic matters, it is a challenge that is not easy to overcome. Catia Bastioli found a solution that contributes to both the environment and the economy. Together with her team, they invented a bioplastic made from crops. The material can be processed just like regular plastics but is biodegradable and decomposes within weeks when added to a compost heap. Based on the strength of her team's biodegradable materials, Bastioli founded Novamont, now a world-leader in the bioplastic sector. She is current CEO and leads some 600 staff spread across the globe. Novamont's 2018 turnover of EURO 238 million highlights the role that sustainable products can play in driving the economy.
Catia Bastioli's scientific knowledge and leadership prowess have also helped elevate her to president of both the Terna Spa of the Kyoto Club Association and the Italian Technological Cluster of Green Chemistry SPRING, and become a member of the Board of Directors of Fondazione Cariplo.
In the past, physical limitations of concrete often curtailed human architectural creativity. Rebars are steel grids or cages that are used to stabilise concrete and while effective, the process of building these grids is expensive and labour intensive, and their design prevents concrete from being moulded into dynamic shapes. Ann Lambrechts revolutionised the construction game with her invention: steel fibre for concrete. When mixed with wet concrete, these pin-like components form a type of 3-dimensional mesh. This gives concrete vastly improved tensile strength and therefore makes it possible to design structures that could not have been produced with cage-like rebars.
Ann Lambrecht's invention was used in the construction of the Gotthard Base tunnel, the world's longest railway tunnel, as well as in the Channel tunnel between London and the mainland of Europe.
If you stream movies on services such as Netflix and enjoy watching video on your mobile devices, you can thank Marta Karczewicz. The mathematics genius from Poland is listed as inventor on some 130 patents. Over the past 20 years, she has invented technology which enables video to be compressed by a factor of 1 000 without losing perceivable image quality, thereby allowing audiences worldwide to stream videos with a standard internet connection. Every time a video is streamed on an online service or broadcast over a high-definition television signal on many terrestrial broadcast networks, it is likely encoded using the Advanced Video Coding (AVC) video standard Karczewicz has helped shape.
Marta Karczewicz is not just a world-class inventor, but also a dynamic leader. In her role as Vice President of Technology at Qualcomm, she heads up the team that focusses on multimedia research and development.
The women inventors mentioned above represent only a handful of the finalists and winners that have been recognised at the European Inventor Award. After the 2020 edition, the EPO will add more names to this impressive list.