Last year, UK businesses registered a record number of inventions. Etan Smallman asks Europe’s leading scientists and technology pioneers how we can inspire the next generation of youngsters
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Inflation is rising, productivity is stubbornly low and Brexit is threatening uncertainty across the board. But there is a glimmer of hope on the economic horizon. Last year, UK businesses registered a record number of inventions with the European Patent Office. What’s more, with an increase in applications of 1.8 per cent, we bucked the trend of falling numbers from the rest of the EU.
It raises the question: could Britain invent its way out of its financial woes? And what would we need to do to catalyse a new generation of youngsters to become the world’s leading innovators? Who better to ask than the scientists and technology pioneers honoured at last week’s European Inventor Award in Venice…
Fifteen finalists competed for six gongs at the “Eurovision of inventors”, which celebrated creations ranging from the breast cancer drug Herceptin to a rapid blood test for malaria and the world’s best-selling wristwatch.
If Gert-Jan Gruter were in charge of the globe’s classrooms, he says he would banish abstract theories from the curriculum. “I have three kids and when I see what they still teach, it’s still so far away from daily life. In every case you can apply the concepts to reality,” says the Dutch scientist, who was nominated for his work converting sugars into a chemical building block that can make plastic bottles out of plants.
Gruter always wanted to study medicine but opted for chemistry after failing to get the university place of his choice – and reckons he did not choose a pure science course first off because his schooling had not taught him clearly enough how it could be practically applied.
He suggests that children are lumbered with overly theoretical textbooks because it would be too costly to continually update them – and the teachers’ training – to make the lessons relevant to up-to-date global challenges.
Lars Liljeryd was a finalist in the awards’ category for industry, for his system of digital audio compression that paved the way for streaming services such as Spotify. The Swedish inventor, who went on to sell his company for £150m, wants “creativity classes” taught in all schools – with pupils encouraged to “think outside the box” rather than penning an answer inside one.
An autodidact, Liljeryd hated school. He described his teachers as “useless”, and he did not go on to university, instead playing drums with a band before starting to play around with electronics.
Youngsters should “not be a specialist in one thing”, he insists, instead counselling: “You should educate yourself in many, many different fields – medicine, technology, economics. Because you need to know a bit of each, then you can see the combinatory effects.”
US engineer James G. Fujimoto also advocates young scientists have a creative hinterland. “The important thing for me is a training in classical music, which is in some ways related to mathematics,” he tells i, moments after triumphing in the non-European countries category for his ground-breaking medical imaging technology.
“Classical music gives you a chance to practise, to develop a technique, and I think that’s one of the key skills in science and engineering.”
Elmar Mock, the Swiss inventor of the Swatch watch and lifetime achievement finalist at the awards, says he did not have an educational turning point – but rather “a breaking point”.
“I broke my leg when I was 14 and I was in bed for six months. It was so boring. So I started to read, I started to observe. I was using my time to dream.”
His own schooling was miserable.
He was dyslexic and had to repeat a year twice. A teacher announced in front of the class that “he was born stupid, he didn’t learn anything and he’s forgotten everything”.
If Mock had his way, 90 per cent of children’s time would be spent learning conventionally but a tenth “should be really oriented to the pleasure of discovering”, by going to the forest, museums, or conducting their own experiments. It is this that he feels has endowed him with “the chance to never be in a category in my life. I was always jumping from one tree to another one.”
Cambridge scientist Helen Lee, a judge of this year’s awards and 2016 winner for her instant HIV-testing kit for developing countries, thinks we should all be failing a little bit more.
Channelling Samuel Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”), she says: “When I set up my previous company, I started in the US. People asked why and I said because I couldn’t find people in Europe who were willing to take the risk, whereas in Silicon Valley, to have worked for a company that went bellyup is almost a badge of honour.
“Everybody is very smart and it is the ability to deal with failure day in and day out that really distinguishes those who finally make it to the finishing line. You also need to have a sense of danger and know when to step back even half a step before you crash.”
And if you want an example of how mistakes can be the making of you, just ask German Günter Hufschmid, who won in the SME category.
One of his staff left a machine running overnight with the wrong settings and workers came in the next morning to find the floor covered in fluff. Hufschmid asked colleagues to hold on to the wax cotton while he pondered how to use it. A month later, while watching reports about the Gulf of Mexico disaster, he had his brainwave – and phoned a colleague, asking him to check if the material absorbed oil. His “supersponge” now takes on seven times its own weight of the stuff.
Many of the inventors also contend that budding scientists need to learn broader life lessons in order to thrive. “Chemists are not usually good at communication and explaining what they do,” laments Gruter.
Teamwork must be promoted over a personal quest for glory, Lee adds. “Certainly for some scientists, who tend to be more introverted, that is a very necessary education,” she says.
Lee also wants to see “more press about people who have really accomplished concrete things and not just pop stars”, and says her number one lesson to any student is: “Be useful”.
Gruter, however, says attracting children to science should be a cinch. “I think there’s no better time to study chemistry than now, because we are really at the start of a huge transition. We will move away from fossil resources and… all the processes we will need will be different. It’s different chemistry, different catalysts, different materials – and it’s a huge opportunity.”
Moroccan biology professor Adnane Remmal won the only prize voted for by the public for his antibiotics “boosted” with natural essential oils – the first drug ever developed in his country.
Remmal (whose own childhood hero was Louis Pasteur) believes pupils need to be taught about historical scientific role models to inspire them to take on the challenges of today.
“We need to teach them that humanity needs you,” he says. “We can tell them that you are born and you will die. And between these two positions, you must do something for others.
“I want to say to children: nothing is impossible. Just try, you will manage. But don’t expect it will be easy. No important thing has ever been easy.”