These top twelve inventions could one day change the world

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The European Patent Office (EPO) today announced its annual shortlist for its European Inventor Awards, which honors a range of scientists across industries. Much like last year, it’s packed with some inventions that could be truly groundbreaking.

The twelve finalists are grouped into four categories, including one for non-European inventors. Three additional inventors also are up for a lifetime achievement award. One winner will be selected from each category, and then the public can vote on the overall winner, with the awards taking place June 9 in Lisbon.

Not all of these fantastical inventions end up as life-changing technology, and some of them may prove too good to be true. Last year’s shortlist included Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos—the diagnostics company that claims to be able to test for a range of ailments from a single drop of blood. Holmes’ company is now under criminal investigation, and many wonder if her proprietary technology even works as she says it does. So take these inventions’ potential with a grain of salt. Or a drop of blood.

Here’s the EPO’s shortlist, broken out by category:


Gluten-free gluten-like proteins

That is not actually bread.
That is not actually bread.
Image: European Patent Office

Italian food scientists Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi have created a method for creating, as the EPO calls them, “gluten-like proteins” out of corn. Their proteins can be used in baked goods that once baked have the taste and mouthfeel of being made from wheat, the EPO says, unlike many gluten-free substitutes on the market. Perhaps soon, people with celiac disease or gluten intolerances will be able to chow down on cookies, cakes, and breads that won’t hurt them.

Secure smartcard encryption

A team of French and Belgian engineers, led by Joan Daemen and  Pierre-Yvan Liardet, created a way to protect against fraud that could happen on credit cards with built-in chips, or smart cards. According to the EPO, a loophole existed in the programming of many smart cards that could have caused fraud for millions of bank customers and mobile phone owners across the world, and Daemen and Liardet’s programs help mitigate those loopholes.

Magnetic Particle Imaging

A German team from Philips, lead by Bernhard Gleich and Jürgen Weizenecker, created a magnetic imaging tool that allows doctors to see inside the human body in what the EPO calls “unprecedented detail.” The device, which has been in clinical trials since 2014, allows doctors detailed, real-time views of soft tissues, tumors, coronary arteries, and other parts of the body, beyond what might be picked up on a regular MRI machine.

Small and medium-sized enterprises

Reducing emissions with ammonia 

A Danish team, consisting of Tue Johannessen, Ulrich Quaade, Claus Hviid Christensen and Jens Kehlet Nørskov, created a company called Amminex. Their main product: A 100-gram (3.5 oz.) block of ammonia salt that can safely be handled, incorporated into exhaust filters, and be used remove nitrogen oxides from diesel engine emissions.

Quick diagnostic kits for the developing world

A lot less invasive than a hole in the head.
A lot less invasive than a hole in the head.
Image: European Patent Office

Helen Lee, a researcher from Cambridge University, created simple diagnostic kits that let doctors test people for a range of ailments, including HIV, Hepatitis B and chlamydia. According to the EPO, Lee’s company, Diagnostics for the Real World, already has clients around the world. The kits have tested over 40,000 people for HIV, and because they don’t require samples to be sent back to a central lab, Lee’s technologies can be deployed to just about any country.

Noninvasive ultrasound to detect brain injuries 

Lithuanian scientist Arminas Ragauskas created a device that helps doctors determine whether someone might have serious brain injuries, or tumors on their central nervous system. Previous methods involved drilling a hole into the patient’s skull. Ragauskas’ method involves placing sensors over their eyes, and using ultrasound and the Doppler Effect to measure brain pressure without having to drill holes in anyone.


Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease 

According to the EPO, the French neuroscientist and physicist Alim-Louis Benabid combined his two disciplines to develop a revolutionary treatment for Parkinson’s, which has already been used on 150,000 patients worldwide. The treatment involves placing a small electrode under the skin, above the brain, then using high-frequency electric pulses to stimulate the brain and treat the muscle tremors associated with Parkinson’s, according to Columbia University Medical Center.

Transistors made of paper

Image: European Patent Office

Portuguese scientists Elvira Fortunato and Rodrigo Martins invented a cheap, disposable paper-based transistor that can be used in electronic devices. Instead of using silicon, like almost all computer chips in the world, Fortunato and her team developed a way to use biodegradable, flexible pieces of paper as the basis for a transistor. The team have rebuilt a standard inkjet printer to print out electric components on a piece of paper, instead of ink. They’ve used the device to print working solar cells, rudimentary displays, and bio-sensors. Martins said in a video released by the EPO that the transistors could be used in any electronic device that needs to be produced cheaply, and in large quantities—think e-readers, except made out of paper.

Rolling fluid turbine

Tiny turbine.
Tiny turbine.
Image: European Patent Office

Czech civil engineer Miroslav Sedláček invented a way to generate power from weak water streams. Most water turbines, like those in dams or at sea, involve water flowing through blades at rapid speeds to generate electricity, but Sedláček’s new method allows power to be generated in brooks or on tidal currents. Sedláček’s small turbines take advantage of the vortex effect found in the eddies in flowing water, and without disturbing the flow of the water, the EPO says each one can power a few households. Anyone living near a body of water, or perhaps a constantly draining bathtub: You’re in luck.

Non-European countries

Biomechatronic leg joints

The natural.
The natural.
Image: European Patent Office

MIT professor Hugh Herr, who lost his parts of his legs in a climbing accident at 17, has created joints that allow amputees wearing leg prostheses to walk, run, and dance with a range of motion comparable to their biological counterparts. The EPO said that his joints have allowed Herr to even start rock climbing again.

Targeted anti-cancer drugs

US engineer Robert Langer has created, as the EPO says in a video, a biodegradable transport mechanism for cancer drugs. When traditional pills are swallowed, the drug dissolves in the stomach and loses potency as it travels to the intended target—and it often has unwanted side-effects when the drug interacts with other parts of the body. Langer’s pills can be implanted where they are needed, and doctors can use them to control how much of the drug is released. According to the EPO, over 1 million people have been treated using bioplastics derived from Langer’s designs.

Faster wireless connectivity

Stanford University professor Arogyaswami Paulraj is behind a technology called MIMO, or “multiple-input and multiple-output” connectivity. According to Intel, it’s a technology that allows wireless devices to send and receive more data in a given period of time, using multiple transmitters and receivers in wireless devices—older devices would have only used a single transmitter or receiver. The technology has become the backbone for current Wi-Fi standards, as well as 4G LTE connectivity, so when that YouTube video or Snapchat loads while you’re on your commute home, thank Paulraj.

Lifetime achievement awards

The EPO also awarded three inventors lifetime achievement awards to honor their contributions to their fields of research. These included:  Alain Carpentier from France, for the first self-regulating implantable artificial heart, which the EPO says could help the 100,000 people waiting for heart transplants every year; Tore Curstedt of Sweden, for his treatment to help premature babies breathe though a medication that has treated over 3 million babies with respiratory issues since it was approved; and Anton van Zanten, for inventing electronic stability control for cars, which the EPO says has prevented roughly 260,000 car accidents in Europe alone since its introduction.