Discoveries, Accidental Inventions and The Millionaires!

By P. Kandiah

Do all inventions need to be a result of targeted research where the researchers are directing their research effort to an intended result? Can accidental inventions be patent eligible? Can discoveries be patent eligible?

Patent laws of most countries do provide that discoveries, scientific principles and laws of nature are not patent-eligible. However, what researchers and scientists need to realise is that the application of discoveries or application of scientific principles to solve a technical problem is patentable although the theory or the law itself is not patentable.

What about inventions that were discovered by accident or a stroke of luck or even a result of failed research? Such inventions are patent eligible, provided the features claimed are novel and are not obvious at the time of filing the patent application.

1. POST-IT ® memo pads

 A researcher, Mr. Spencer Silver, employed at 3M Corporation, was attempting to create a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry—this was the target of the research. However, all Mr. Silver ended up creating was a weak adhesive, the opposite of what the adhesive was supposed to be. So, if one looked at the research objectives, it was a failed experiment. The weak adhesive turned out to be a re-usable pressure-applied adhesive. Initially, he didn’t know what to do with it.

A colleague of his applied the adhesive onto small sheets of paper and stuck them to his hymnal songbook in church so he could turn to the correct page without leaving stains on the pages. Thus, the POST-IT® memo pads came into existence.

After a few failed attempts to commercialize the POST-IT® memo pads, 3M managed to successfully market the invention—not the adhesive itself, but the POST-IT® memo pads!

2. VIAGRA ® pills

A group of researchers directed their efforts towards developing a pharmaceutical drug to treat hypertension in humans. The trial drug was tested on a group of male volunteers. However, the drug did not yield the intended results, leading the researchers to consider abandoning the research project. Surprisingly, the volunteers expressed a desire to continue taking the drug. Upon investigation by the nurse administering the drug, it was discovered that the volunteers were experiencing an unexpected side effect.

The nurse reported her observation to the researchers, who then realized they may have stumbled upon a drug to treat erectile dysfunction in men. This drug, later trademarked as ‘VIAGRA,’ turned out to be a groundbreaking discovery. Following its launch in the market, VIAGRA became an all-time bestseller for Pfizer, earning the company billions of dollars within a few months.

3. VELCRO ® hook and loop fastener

Many inventions result from the application of natural occurrences, arising from a series of observations and investigations.

Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented the first hook and loop fastener. In 1941, he went for a walk in the Alps. After his walk, he wondered why grass (burdock) seeds stuck to his woollen socks and coat and also onto the fur of his dog. Intrigued, he investigated this phenomenon under a microscope and discovered that his discovery could be turned into something useful.

His first patent was granted in 16, March 1954 in Switzerland for a “hook and a loop” fastener. He trademarked his fastener ‘VELCRO’, a combination of the words velvet and crochet. Initially, the VELCRO fastener was made of cotton. Mestral later discovered that nylon worked better due to its durability.

VEL-CRO is a trademark.

As of now, the original VELCRO patent has expired, placing the hook and loop fastener technology in the public domain. However, the trademark ‘VELCRO‘ still maintains a significant market share, having become a household name.

4. PENICILLIN antibiotic drug 

In 1928, the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming, working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, made a groundbreaking discovery — penicillin. Returning from a holiday to his lab, he found mould growing in a petri dish containing Staphylococcus bacteria. He noticed the mould seemed to be preventing the colonies of bacteria around it from growing. Upon closer examination, he identified that the moulds produced a self-defence chemical capable of killing bacteria. He called the substance penicillin. It was Fleming’s keen observation and inquisitive mind that led to the identification of this naturally occurring chemical, which later found practical application as a pharmaceutical drug.

5. X-Ray 

In December 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen reported the discovery of X-rays after seven weeks of meticulous study during which he examined the properties of a new type of radiation capable of penetrating notable thicknesses. He named the X-rays to underline the fact that their nature was unknown.

As early as January 1896, physicians and physicists began using X-rays to investigate skeletons and, subsequently, lungs and other organs. This marked the birth of radiology. It is important for researchers to note that while the method of diagnosing the human body using X-rays is not patent-eligible, the equipment and accessories used to generate X-rays are eligible for patents.

In the scenarios mentioned earlier, the researchers demonstrated a keen acumen for observation and analysis, a quality that proved instrumental in uncovering practical and technical applications arising from their discoveries.

Back home in Malaysia, during the early 1990s, a researcher introduced hypodermic extraction of latex from rubber trees. Drawing inspiration from the process of extracting blood by puncturing a blood vessel, the researcher questioned why a similar approach couldn’t be applied to extract latex from the latex-bearing vessel in the bark of a rubber tree. The method and its associated equipment were granted a Malaysian patent. Unfortunately, before the invention could be further improvised, the aged researcher passed away leaving the invention to others to continue the work.

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