World IP Day "Innovation - Improving Lives" with Electronics

25 April 2017

Each year on 26 April, IP professionals around the world celebrate World IP Day. This year, World IP Day focuses on innovation that has improved lives in the areas of health, safety and comfort.

1. Clinical Thermometer
Many scientists have been credited with playing a part in the invention of the thermometer. Back in around 260 BC, Philo of Byzantium is reported to have discovered that air expands and contracts. The expansion, which may be caused by changes in temperature, was demonstrated to move water along a closed tube. In the 1500s, when he wasn’t observing the planets, Galileo Galilei developed an instrument that became known as a thermoscope – a thermometer without a scale.

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented an alcohol thermometer in 1709 and, in 1714 introduced the far-improved mercury thermometer – which is still used in schools to this day – in 1714. Fahrenheit‘s continued work with thermometers led to him devising the his own temperature scale (the Fahrenheit one!) in 1724.

The more accurate digital thermometer is preferred in medical situations nowadays, but traditional liquid thermometers, and indeed the Fahrenheit temperature scale, are still widely used.

2. Virtual Reality in Healthcare
Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming more and more commonplace in many areas of healthcare from training junior doctors in a safe environments, to helping to cure phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and for providing pain management.

The real step forward comes in the use of VR to visualize parts of the body from every possible angle without having to open up the body. One incredible story tells of Dr Redmond Burke, who performed heart surgery on a baby girl after using Google Cardboard to visualize her heart before the surgery. Every moment wasted on the operating table increases patient risk exponentially, but by viewing the heart beforehand, Dr Burke greatly cut down on the amount of time needed on the table.

Google Cardboard is a VR device made entirely from cardboard, designed as a head mount for use with a smartphone. Cardboard-compatible apps can be run on the smartphone which give a virtual reality experience. The design was probably initially conceived with gaming and other more mundane uses in mind; it’s unlikely that they ever thought it would be used to save lives.

Google Cardboard

A US design patent US D750,074 was granted to Google on the basis of their design in 2016.

3. Medical Imaging (MRI and CT scanning)
Computed Tomography (CT) scans make use of a series of x-ray images, which are taken over a range of angles and combined to generate a cross sectional image of a target.

The idea of imaging a slice of a body on a radiographic film was first proposed in the early 1900s by a radiologist called Alessandro Vallebona. The theory was developed over the 20th century and, in 1971, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield and Dr Allan Cormack developed the first commercially viable CT scanner. Hounsfield and Cormack won Novel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1979.

The original concept for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was developed by Dr Raymond Vahan Damadian, in 1969. When a strong magnetic field is applied across a target to be examined, hydrogen atoms, which are present in water and fat in the target, are caused to generate a radio-frequency signal that can be detected by a nearby antenna. Therefore, an MRI scan essentially provides a map of water and fat within the target.

MRI scanner

Dr Damadian was named as inventor in a US patent application filed in 1972. The resulting patent, US 3,789,832 and was successfully enforced against General Electric Corp. in 1997.  The first MRI scanner was constructed and tested in 1977 and, since then, developments in the field of MRI scanning have been made, resulting in the filing of thousands of patent applications relating to the field of MRI scanning, and the use of over 20,000 MRI scanners around the world.

4. LifeStraw®
The LifeStraw® project began in 1999 when a health company, Vestergaard, developed a straw-shaped filter for removing Guinea worm larvae from water. The filter was developed into a product capable of removing the majority of microbiological contaminants that make water unsafe to drink.

In 2005, LifeStraw® was born and, since then, LifeStraw® products have been distributed and used in more than 64 countries around the world. The LifeStraw® product line has grown and, in 2014, one of the company’s innovations formed the basis of US patent number 8,852,439.

5. Robotic/AI surgery
In 1992, the first pure robotic surgery was performed by Dr Senthil Nathan using the PROBOT, developed at Imperial College London. The PROBOT was specifically designed for transurethral resection of the prostate. While PROBOT was being developed, ROBODOC, a robotic system designed to assist hip replacement surgeries was the first surgical robot that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Further development of robotic systems was carried out by SRI International and Intuitive Surgical with the introduction of the da Vinci Surgical System.

Although the telesurgical robot was originally intended to facilitate remotely-performed surgery in battlefields and other difficult to access environments, it turned out to be more useful for minimally invasive on-site surgery. The da Vinci system senses the surgeon's hand movements and translates them electronically into scaled-down micro-movements to manipulate the tiny proprietary instruments. It also detects and filters out any tremors in the surgeon's hand movements, so that they are not duplicated robotically. The camera used in the system provides a true stereoscopic picture transmitted to a surgeon's console. Examples of using the da Vinci system include the first robotically assisted heart bypass in May 1998, and the first all-robotic-assisted kidney transplant, performed in January 2009.

Interestingly, a number of core patents relating to the da Vinci robotic design expired in 2015 and 2016, particularly patents covering some of the basic robotic concepts implemented in the company’s products, including the control of robotic arms and tools with a remote controller, and the imaging functionality provided by the surgical robot. The expiration of these patents may potentially open up the field for more innovation in the near future.

6. Pacemaker
The theory behind electrically stimulating the heart was known back in the early 1900s. However, with the 1950s came Medtronic, the company where significant progress was made in the development of the pacemaker.

Dr C. Walton Lillehei was an open-heart surgeon during the 1950s. Lillehei applied mains-powered pacemakers to patients during surgery, but regular power outages meant that the mains-powered devices were unreliable. Around that time, Earl Bakken, who co-founded Medtronic, was visiting Lillehei’s hospital, witnessed the problems with the existing pacemakers, and was asked to design an improved pacemaker. Bakken agreed, and Medtronic’s external battery-powered pacemaker was born.

Over a decade later, electrical engineer William Greatbatch worked with a small team of doctors to develop the first viable implantable pacemaker. US patent number 3,057,356 was granted to Greatbatch in 1962 on the basis of his invention. Since then, pacemaker design has been greatly improved. The latest pacemakers are around the size of a large pill and can be implanted directly in the heart.

7. Defibrillator
Defibrillators are used to deliver a dose of electric current to the heart, which can be used to alter a person’s heartbeat, or to restart the heart, for example during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

External defibrillators are used to apply shocks to a patient’s heart through paddles applied to the patient’s skin either side of the heart. The development of the external defibrillator began near the end of the 19th century, when it was demonstrated that small electric shocks could change heartbeat patterns in dogs. The first use on a human was in 1947.

Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), are smaller devices which are implanted into a patient’s body to correct life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). The ICD was developed in the late 1960s, and US patent number 3,614,954 (“Electronic Standby Defibrillator”) was granted in October 1971. The first device was implanted in 1980 and, since then ICDs have been implanted in millions of people… and two dogs! The development of defibrillation devices in recent years had resulted in automated external defibrillators (AEDs) – suitable for use by people without medical training – being made available in many public areas.

8. 3D printed leg cast
3D printers are at the forefront of modern – and let’s face it, totally cool – technology. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that someone has taken the 3D printing power into the medical world. This 3D printed leg cast, known as the BOOMcast, is fitted with embedded electronics that allow a doctor to monitor the leg’s physical state from anywhere in the world. It also sports pressure sensors, Bluetooth speakers (Why? Your guess is as good as mine….), LED lights, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and WiFi enabled Intel Edison.

In other words, it’s got more gadgets than the average phone.

Medically speaking, as it is 3D printed it can be made as a custom fit from a digital body scan. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be signing their names on these with a big felt-tip pen any time soon.

9. Health monitoring wearable devices
In today’s society, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who had never heard of some sort of fitness tracker, be that a Fitbit®, Garmin®, TomTom®, Jawbone®… the list goes on. However, this type of tracker has also made its way into the medical field. The capability to measure vital signs has be found to be useful for monitoring patient’s welfare.

Imec have not only produced a remote electrocardiogram (EKG) patch to keep tabs on a patient’s heart activity, but have extended the wearable devices to a headset with electroencephalographic (EEG) capabilities. This means that it can monitor a patient’s brain activity; continuously; and remotely.

Andrew Flaxman

Andrew Flaxman


Olivia Murphy

Olivia Murphy


Our Experts
Andrew Flaxman
Andrew Flaxman
Location: Bristol (UK)
Olivia Crawford
Olivia Crawford
Location: Bristol (UK)

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