Press release | 17.6.2021
Munich, 17 June 2021 - The European Patent Office (EPO) today honoured German physicist Karl Leo with the European Inventor Award 2021 in the "Lifetime achievement" category. Leo's method for boosting organic semiconductors with electron producing substances ("doping") has transformed the electronics industry and delivered improved products for millions of people. His highly efficient organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display technology, which provides greater image brightness, higher colour resolution and better power efficiency, can now be found in almost all newer smartphones and other electronic devices that we use every day.
"Karl Leo's life's work has had a profound impact across multiple sectors, advancing technology which is environmentally friendly, and improving products that are used by millions of people worldwide," said EPO President António Campinos. "Throughout his distinguished career he has also demonstrated an ability to identify commercial applications from cutting-edge fundamental research, putting technology to work to solve problems, and creating businesses and jobs in the process."
This year's European Inventor Award ceremony was held digitally, and for the first time was open to the public who tuned in from around the world. The Award, one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes, is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and beyond who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth. The finalists and winners in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement) were selected by an independent international jury.
Karl Leo's early fascination with household electronics - his passion for repairing things earned him the nickname ‘the technician' among family members - later ignited his interest in semiconductors. This became the focus of his undergraduate thesis at Freiburg's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in 1985, where he began to think about how electronic devices could be improved.
His PhD and early post-graduate career concentrated on inorganic semiconductors - semiconductors composed of non-carbon-based materials. At the time, organic semiconductors were considered impractical due to their poor electrical conductivity and short lifespan. Leo noticed that few people had considered ‘doping' for organic semiconductors - adding tiny amounts of substances which produce freely moving electrons to boost a material's conductivity. "Coming new to research is often helpful, because it helps to challenge dogmas," says the inventor.
Leo achieved his key breakthrough in 1998, when he and his team of researchers at the Technische Universität Dresden, including then PhD students Martin Pfeiffer and Jan Blochwitz, successfully created an organic semiconductor LED requiring only one-fifth of the voltage previously needed. These organic semiconductors were also more sustainable than inorganic semiconductors due to their high efficiency, long lifespan, low-energy production process and potential to be recycled. Leo and his team continued to refine the process further, and in 2001, he co-founded the German start-up company Novaled AG® - later acquired by Samsung - to commercialise these OLED technologies and materials.
Leo later began adapting semiconductors to function in organic solar cells, which led to him co-founding the spin-off behind the world's first industrial-grade organic solar film that can be mounted on buildings. "My dream is that in 10 or 20 years they'll be on every building, helping to solve the climate crisis," Leo says.
These successes reflect a career built on a passion for research and technology, and an innate curiosity. Leo has co-founded numerous start-ups in Germany's ‘Silicon Saxony' tech region to bring his inventions to market, and he says that patents play a crucial role in the commercialisation process. He continues to explore new applications for his ground-breaking organic semiconductors. "I see opportunities much beyond what has been achieved today: flexible, lightweight, environmentally-friendly organic electronics can be applied almost everywhere," says the inventor. "If my past has taught me anything, it is that it is good to dream."
Prof. Dr Karl Leo was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany on 10 July 1960. Following his undergraduate physics studies in Freiburg, he received a PhD from the University of Stuttgart and the Max-Planck-Institute for Solid State Research. After an early post‑graduate career focused on inorganic semiconductors at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the United States and then in Germany at RWTH Aachen University, he accepted a full professorship in optoelectronics at Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) in 1993. His research on improving organic semiconductor conductivity led to the commercialisation of components, such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), and the acquisition of the OLED spin-off Novaled by Samsung. He lives with his wife and two children in Dresden, where he is Chair and Professor of Optoelectronics at TU Dresden and Director of the interdisciplinary Dresden Integrated Center for Applied Physics and Photonic Materials (IAPP). He is named in 22 granted European patents, including the patents EP1488468, EP1861886, and EP2658006, which form the basis of his nomination for the European Inventor Award, and is the co-founder of several companies.
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement). In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists through online voting.
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Luis Berenguer Giménez
Principal Director Communication, Spokesperson
Tel.: +49 89 2399 1203