World Intellectual Property Organization

PCT PORTRAITS: Never mind the acronyms. Meet the innovators.

September 2005

Since the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) began operating in 1978, inventors have filed more than one million international patent applications, covering inventions of every description. Some of these never make it beyond the patent stage. Others are preserved as nuggets of technical know-how until they are acquired and commercialized by an IP-savvy company. Many lie at the heart of fast-moving technological developments across every conceivable sector. In this series of articles, WIPO Magazine picks out a few eye-catching innovations from among the million applications.

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(Courtesy of Novamont)

Bio-plastics: letting the planet breathe

Petroleum-based plastics, the convenience materials par excellence of the 20th century, are clogging the pores of our planet.

Combating the environmental scourge is Novamont, a research-based company in northern Italy led by Dr. Catia Bastioli. Novamont’s project, “Living Chemistry for Quality of Life,” is anchored in Dr. Bastioli’s firm conviction that scientific research should benefit mankind.

"If we look at the problems of waste, climate change and pollution of the air, water and soil...then unless industry takes responsibility for what it is doing in a very short time we will destroy the planet," Dr. Bastioli told Reuters. "We need to meet the needs of the present generation without sacrificing the lives of future generations."

Material scientists at Novamont invented Mater-Bi, a 100 percent biodegradable and compostable bio-polymer, made from corn starch and similar renewable resources of vegetable origin. Already a market-leading bio-plastic, Mater-Bi has the versatility of conventional plastics. It is being used in the manufacture of products, including bags, packaging, tires, toys and disposal diapers. Agricultural applications include fully biodegradable mulching film, which in turn reduces the need for pesticides, accelerates the cultivation cycle, and cuts down water consumption.

Novamont’s contribution to sustainable development has been recognized in a string of awards. These include the 2002 "World Summit Business Award for Sustainable Development Partnership," given in Johannesburg by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and by the International Chambers of Commerce.

Founded in 1989, Novamont today has a turnover of €30 million and employs over a hundred people. With over 20 PCT applications to her name, Dr. Bastioli has made extensive use of the PCT in the company’s IP strategy, as well as registering the Novamont and Mater-Bi trademarks via the Madrid system.

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Brain chip translates thoughts to actions

A micro-device capable of reading the thoughts of a paralyzed person and translating them into actions? This surely is the stuff of science fiction. But a project led by neuroscientist Professor John Donoghue of Brown University, Rhode Island, in the United States, is turning fiction into fact.

Building on years of laboratory research, Professor Donoghue co-founded Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, Inc. which is now conducting clinical trials of a brain-computer interface know as the BrainGate. The first participant in the trials is a young man who was left paralyzed after a knife attack.

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(Courtesy of Cyberkinetics)

In pioneering neurosurgery, the BrainGate, a sensor the size of a contact lens, has been implanted in the part of the man’s brain which controls muscle movements. Consisting of 100 electrodes of less than a hair’s breadth, it intercepts and decodes the language of neurons, i.e. the electrical signals which the brain sends to the different parts of the body. (The brain often continues to transmit these signals in people who have lost the ability to move their limbs.) The BrainGate then relays the messages to a cursor on a computer screen, allowing the user to operate a number of household devices.

The young man is now to able to read his e-mails and play video games, to grasp objects with a robotic arm and to operate his television controls and lights. – All simply by thinking the actions.

"Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System so that it can be linked to many useful devices," says Professor Donoghue. His team is working on linking the BrainGate to medical devices, such as muscle stimulators, which could eventually enable severely disabled people to control their own limbs and bodily functions.

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Dignified homes out of dirt and devastation

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Depending on the external finish, the domes can be either temporary refugee shelters or homes lasting up to 30 years. (Courtesy of Nader Khalili/The Aga Khan Award for Architecture)

Thirty years ago, Nader Khalili left his architectural practice designing high rise office blocks in Los Angeles and Tehran, and set off by motorbike across the Persian deserts of his home land. During a five-year odyssey, he read poetry by 13th century mystic Jalaluddin Rumi on the elemental forces of earth, fire, wind and water, while seeking inspiration among ancient Middle Eastern building forms which could help solve global problems of today.

Foremost among the problems which preoccupied him was the need for emergency shelter for people displaced by wars and natural disasters. The answer, he concluded, lay in the dirt under the victims’ feet and the strength in their hands.

Combining thousand year old principles with modern building technology, Nader Khalili developed an earth construction technique known as the superadobe/superblock system. With it he created dome-shaped housing, based on coiled layers of dirt-filled sandbags. Barbed wire between the layers prevents the sandbags from slipping. The materials of war – sandbags and barbed wire – are thus used for peaceful ends.

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The beautiful, vaulted structures are strong, (rigorous official tests in California broke the testing equipment but not the building), environmentally friendly and resistant to floods, fire, earthquake and hurricanes. The walls provide natural insulation against heat and cold. They can be constructed cheaply and quickly by men, women and children with minimal instruction. They can also be readily adapted to provide permanent housing.

Mr. Khalili explained to AlertNet that his decision to patent the building method was driven by his desire to ensure that he could deliver the technology to those in need: “The mission of my life for the last 25 years has been to provide shelter for people who cannot afford it. But you need to protect this, because many systems of building have been started for the poor, but along the way they become too commercial to get to them.”

His prototype shelters have attracted interest from organizations ranging from UN agencies to NASA, and featured among winners of the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

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