Press release | 7.5.2019
Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Norwegian inventor, engineer and entrepreneur Esben Beck has been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 as one of three finalists in the category "SMEs" for developing the first underwater robot to kill sea lice, tackling a major problem in the salmon industry.
been commercialising his invention through his Oslo-based SME since 2014,
transforming it from a basement start-up to a cutting-edge technology firm. His robot is already being used
by fish farmers in Norway and is now being extended to other fish farming markets
outside the country.
"This invention shows how high-tech from an SME can help an established industry that is worth billions," said EPO President António Campinos about Esben Beck's nomination as a finalist for the European Inventor Award 2019. "Beck's patent application enabled him to raise funding to develop technology which can benefit animal welfare and improve yields in fisheries."
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.
Norway is the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world and the country's salmon industry is worth over EUR 6.4 billion annually. Sea lice pose a serious threat to this sector, and Norway's salmon farmers spend more than EUR 800 million – some 12.5% of the industry's overall value – each year on standard measures to control outbreaks of the parasite.
Sea lice are typically no larger than 15 mm and attach themselves to salmon causing an open wound and increasing the risk of infection. This causes the fish to lose weight, and frequently die. The problem can be more acute in farms, where a single pen may contain around 200 000 fish. The high density of salmon gives the parasites greater opportunity to multiply, and the lice therefore also have a much higher rate of survival than they do in the wild. Outbreaks can reduce fish harvests in Norway by an estimated 9%, costing over EUR 500 million in lost revenues. This impacts farmers' livelihoods and affects consumers by increasing prices.
To complicate matters, conventional treatments to remove lice, such as brushing the fish with hot water, flushing them through strong currents and using chemicals, cause stress to salmon as farmers often must starve their fish for days prior to the treatment and handle them physically. This can be harmful and stressful to the fish, result in reduced growth rates, and may even kill some of them. The chemicals used in delousing drugs and cleaning products often spread to waters around the farm with potential negative impacts on the environment, and sea lice have become multi-resistant to several of them.
Esben Beck, a self-taught inventor with experience in marine engineering and remotely controlled deep-sea robots, quickly came up with the idea that lasers could be used to tackle sea lice when he learnt of the problem. Laboratory tests confirmed his concept and searches in patent databases showed that no one else had come up with a similar technology yet.
He consequently moved to obtain patent protection for
the technology, using his patent application and prototypes produced in his
basement to raise over EUR 2.5 million of government funds and
venture capital from the sea food industry. With these funds, along with own
capital and support from employees of more than EUR 1.5 million, Beck founded
Stingray Marine Solutions AS in 2012. He put together a team of experts in
artificial intelligence, visual recognition and laser technology to research
and eventually commercialise his idea.
Beck's SME has since invested a total of EUR 25 million to develop the Stingray, a submersible device as large as a boxer's punching bag and capable of killing tens of thousands of sea lice a day while leaving the salmon on which they feed unharmed. The device is equipped with stereo cameras and uses artificial intelligence to examine video footage in real-time. Powerful onboard computers scan all recognisable parts of the fish simultaneously and can pinpoint the shade and shape of any sea lice in just seven milliseconds. The software then models the path of the fish in the water to predict the future location of the targeted sea louse. It then directs movable mirrors to focus the device's green laser beam onto the individual sea louse, lock it on target and fire short pulses of intense light into the parasite. The green wavelength transmits effectively underwater. The laser burst is deadly for the opaque, brown-coloured parasites, but it bounces off the shiny fish scales of the salmon.
The device is fully automated and can operate 24/7 without the need for human intervention or handling of the fish. The ingenuity of the invention required determination and hard work to turn into a viable product. "A lot of people told us that it would be impossible and that is such a great motivational factor for any inventor," said Beck.
Stingray Marine Solutions AS, which operates as a subsidiary of Beck Engineering AS, has rapidly expanded to around 50 permanent staff members working at a 4500 m2 factory in Oslo, Norway.
Beck's technology has been adopted in more than 100 salmon farms in Norway, bringing in sales of Stingray devices worth nearly EUR 10 million in 2018. No other company has a similar product on the market at present, so this unique approach to fighting sea lice offers a new solution to farmers across Norway in tackling a significant problem.
Protected by Beck's original patent, the Norwegian SME is in a good position to expand its market share within this key industry at home as well as to explore new salmon farming markets around the world, from Scotland to Chile, where parasites continue to be a problem.
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 at a ceremony that will this year take place in Vienna on 20 June. In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists by online voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 16 June 2019.
With nearly 7 000 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 cooperation 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.
View the patent: EP2531022
Additional information, photos and videos about the European Inventor Award 2019 can be found in the EPO Media Centre. Smart TV users can download our app "Innovation TV" and watch videos about all finalists on their TV screen. The award ceremony on 20 June 2019 will be broadcast live on Innovation TV, the EPO website and the EPO's Facebook page.
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