VIENNA - The European Patent Office (EPO) announced in a press release that it has honored Dutch materials scientist Rik Breur with the European Inventor Award 2019 in the "SMEs" category at a ceremony held in Vienna. Breur has developed a non-toxic wrap for marine structures and ships that prevents biofouling - the growth of marine life such as algae, barnacles and mussels on maritime structures. The presence of these organisms can damage marine platforms and increase fuel costs for vessels due to the drag caused when levels build up. His invention prevents biofouling without the use of harmful chemicals which pollute the water.
"By taking inspiration from nature and applying his scientific expertise, Rik Breur has developed a solution that benefits both the maritime sector and the marine environment," said EPO President António Campinos. "Breur's story also shows how protecting intellectual property rights can benefit SMEs. He patented his invention early on, giving him and his one-man company the necessary credibility from his backers to turn his innovation into a business."
Today's European Inventor Award ceremony at the Wiener Stadthalle was attended by some 600 guests from the fields of intellectual property, politics, business, science and academia. The Award is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world 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 from a pool of hundreds of inventors and teams of inventors put forward for this year's Award.
Promoting an effective, green solution to biofouling
Every year toxic antifouling paints release 50 000 tonnes of chemicals into the sea, many of which can be harmful to marine life. Rik Breur recognised that a greener solution was needed to the problem of biofouling.
Breur began his professional career at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in 1996. After earning a PhD in corrosion and biofouling from the Delft University of Technology in 2001, he started his own research company, Material Innovation Centre, in 2002 to pursue innovation in this area. The inspiration for his antifouling wrap came from his long-time interest in biology and passion for diving, where he saw first-hand how creatures with spiky surfaces, such as sea urchins, repel potential settlers.
"Nature is a big inspiration for an inventor," Breur says. "Over years of evolution, nature has already solved all kinds of things that we humans can learn from. I set out to design a film featuring a surface of stiff, spiny microfibres, much like the spines of a sea urchin. The challenge was finding the right balance between length, thickness, stiffness and density of the fibres. After many test runs it worked quite well and I applied for a patent immediately. The patent was key to the business development: It gave me credibility and helped me to get investors on board."
Marketed as Finsulate Antifouling, Breur's wrap consists of nylon fibres, polyester self-adhesive film and a two-component water-based adhesive and is supplied in rolls like carpeting. It is pressed against the vessel's hull, a process that can be completed by any shipyard, wrapping or painting company. Due to the perpendicular fibres, it doesn't matter which way round the film is applied. The fibres are closely packed together so that nothing can attach itself in between. Importantly, the coating does not slow down the vessels, thanks to careful work on the hydrodynamics, and can cut fuel costs by up to 40%.
Breur's business is currently centred on the pleasure craft and yachting sector, which is largest in Europe and North America, although his invention has also been successfully used in the shipping industry. At present, Breur runs a one-man operation and outsources almost every aspect of the business. His focus is on finding commercial partners with logistics and distribution already in place rather than building a big company. This strategy leaves him free to do what he is most passionate about: developing new inventions. With his next invention, which is based on otter skin, he plans to further increase fuel savings.
"I'm an inventor at heart," he says. "It's not about making profit; it's about getting the product out there. And most of all, it's about getting the toxins out of the markets."
About the European Inventor Award
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. To qualify for the Award, all proposals have to meet specific criteria, including the requirement that the inventor had to have been granted at least one European patent for their invention by the EPO. The finalists and winners in five categories are selected by an independent jury of international authorities in the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals in terms of their contribution towards scientific and technological progress, society, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The winner of the Popular Prize is chosen by the general public from among the 15 finalists by online voting in the run-up to the ceremony. This year's 15 finalists were selected from hundreds of proposals put forward by members of the public, national patent offices around Europe, and EPO staff.
About the EPO
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 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.