Businesses in Britain registered the highest number of inventions in history last year. With Brexit casting economic uncertainty over research and development, inspiring the next generation of innovative scientists and technology pioneers is a challenge.

However, figures do show that it’s not as bleak an outlook as previously thought. UK businesses registered 1.8% more inventions with the European Patent Office. This goes against the trend for the rest of the EU which registered falling numbers of inventions.

Could inventions be the key to helping the country out of its perilous financial position?

European Inventor Awards

The recent European Inventor Awards, which honours technology and scientific pioneers working on the cutting edge, are run by the European Patent Office (EPO). The awards have yielded many products that were absorbed into every day life, from Herceptin, the breast cancer drug to a new way to test for malaria.

What can the winners teach Britain about the next generation of inventors and scientific leaders? Dutch scientist Gert-Jan Gruter, who was nominated for an EIA for his work converting plants to plastic bottles using sugars, believes it starts in the classroom.

Too much theory and not enough application of concepts to reality is holding inventors back, according to Gert.

Creativity vital

Lars Liljeryd was selected for the industry category for his digital audio compression system that is used by services like Spotify. Lars sold his company for £150 million and credits creative thinking as key to successful inventions.

The Swedish pioneer thinks that creativity should be taught in schools, with teachers encouraging students to think differently, rather than encouraging conformity. He also believes that students should never be pushed into studying just one subject. He said: “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.”

Encouraging discovery

Lifetime achievement finalist Elmar Mock, who is famous for inventing the Swatch watch, credits an enforced break in his schooling for developing his curious mind. He said: “I broke my leg when I was 14 and 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.”

Elmar believes that, although 90% of students’ time should be spent learning conventional methods, the rest should concentrate on the pleasure of discovering. Children should be taken to museums, to forests and allowed to conduct their own experiments.

Failure no barrier to success

Being prepared to fail is a core skill, according to UK based Helen Lee. Helen is a scientist from Cambridge who won an award in 2016 for an instant HIV testing kit for developing countries. Also a judge at this year’s awards, Helen thinks that everyone should be failing more.

Failing should lead to trying harder, trying different ways and finding a solution. She started her company in the US, citing Europe’s unwillingness to take a risk. In Silicon Valley, she says, to have worked for a company that has failed in some way is “almost a badge of honour”.

Helen believes it’s the ability of those to deal with failure in a constructive way that separates the great from the smart. She said: “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.”

Mistakes can make you

Gunter Hufschmid, a German inventor, won in the SME category this year after turning a factory mistake into a successful product. When one of his staff left a machine on overnight by accident, the floor was covered in a wax cotton substance. Instead of throwing it away, Hufschmid eventually devised a use for it as a ‘super sponge’ that can be used to clean oil spills.

Gunter says that student scientists shouldn’t ignore other aspects of life, such as communication. He said: “Chemists are not usually good at communication and explaining what they do.” He insists teamwork should come before a personal quest for discovery.

As the world is forced to move away from fossil fuels, Hufschmid says that there is no better time to get involved in discovering chemistry. All the processes in the future will be different, with different materials and chemicals, making it a time of great discovery.

See the full list of the EPO Awards 2017 here.

Dawn Ellmore Employment was incorporated in 1995 and is a market leader in intellectual property and legal recruitment.