Press release | 7.5.2019
Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that British engineers Richard Palmer and Philip Green have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 as finalists in the category "SMEs" for developing an intelligent material that hardens upon impact. Incorporated into protective gear, today D3O materials provide greater comfort and a higher level of protection than conventional padding.
To develop and market their initial material Palmer and Green founded a start-up in the UK in the late 1990s. D3O continues to develop their invention as a successful business, with its materials being used worldwide by sportspeople, motorcyclists, soldiers, industrial workers, and everyday smartphone users alike.
"Palmer and Green show how two committed individuals can apply engineering skills to develop an innovative material and create a commercial product," said EPO President António Campinos about the UK inventors' nomination. "For these inventors, obtaining patent protection was crucial in helping them secure investment and funding to set up their business."
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.
Conventional protective clothing and equipment is often rigid and uncomfortable. As passionate snowboarders, Palmer and Green were only too well aware of these constraints. They found that the elbow pads and gloves they used were bulky and restrictive. Thanks to their training in engineering and their experience in working with polymers, and the knowledge gained through their hobby, they were certain they could come up with an improved material for protective gear.
Palmer was joined by Green in founding a start-up in 1999 to develop their concept. Palmer’s belief in its potential was so strong that he sold his house and belongings to raise funds and slept on a friend'’s sofa for many months. They experimented with many different materials and became especially fascinated by dilatant fluids, which are soft when stirred slowly, but become hard when exposed to any rapid impact or collision. "Our base material has actually been around for a very long time, and amazingly never really found an application commercially apart from children's toys," says Palmer. The inventors saw that the properties of dilatant fluids made them the perfect protective material, but needed to work out how to retain the shape.
Their next breakthrough idea came during a trip to the mountains. After looking at the matrix-like quality of snow, they began to think about replicating it to develop a matrix of flexible material that incorporated the dilatant fluid, instead of trying to store one material inside another. Back home, they began impregnating dilatant liquids into open cellular foam: the concept was that the foam gave shape, while the flexible polymer seeped into the holes and formed a flexible composite.
Both Palmer and Green knew that with investment rounds coming up, filing a successful patent application was absolutely critical in terms of attracting funding. However, to their dismay, just weeks before they planned to take their patent application international, a search in patent databases revealed that a Japanese company had already patented a very similar material. "That was a whole year wasted looking at impregnated foams. We did a lot of testing, they were good, but we just simply couldn't use them," says Green. This threatened Palmer and Green's whole project, but also motivated the inventors to return to the lab.
Rather than pouring the dilatant fluid into an existing open-cell foam, they now tried to dissolve it into one of the liquid precursors of polyurethane foam. It took exhaustive experimentation using numerous types of polyurethane systems and blending approaches to get the formulation just right. Eventually their plan worked and they created a stable padding that was flexible and yet instantaneously stiffened on impact. "Now we finally had it in our hands! We refiled the patent, raised funding based on the patent and the product, and started a successful business journey!" says Palmer.
This effort resulted in the final revised formulation that the inventors named D3O after the lab in which it was created and has inspired what is now a broad range of D3O material and product solutions. "It's a somewhat magical material. It is soft and flexible, so it can move with you and match your body shape but instantaneously on impact it locks together to protect you," adds Palmer, commenting on the inventors' journey that "it is only when you come to something where everyone else has stopped and no one's tried to get round it or it is not easy to get round, that's where real innovation and real inventions can be found – at the dead ends."
The inventor's first major commercial break came when skateboarding footwear and apparel firm Globe launched a range of shoes in 2005 with D3O embedded in the heel. Globe sold 12 000 pairs in the first year alone. A second major breakthrough occurred when ski apparel company Spyder incorporated D3O into the US and Canadian ski teams' racing suits for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The benefits of a material able to protect skiers' shins and forearms from race gates that can snap back at high speed were soon recognised by the wider sports equipment industry. Exposure at the Winter Olympics helped consolidate the idea that D3O was special and, according to Palmer, once one athlete tried it and liked it then everyone wanted to try it.
The company that Palmer and Green originally set up – which trades under the name D3O – is today a fast growing engineering, design and technology-focussed SME based in London, in the UK. It also has offices in China and the US. D3O is now sold in more than 50 countries and has been adopted by leading brands such as 3M, CCM, Scott Sports and Triumph. Now established beyond the sporting goods market, D3O is being used in motorcycle gear, protective cases for consumer electronics including phones, industrial workwear and military protection including helmet pads and limb protectors.
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(s): EP1832186
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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