The name Professor Ian Shanks is not known to many people. But the scientist is at the heart of a legal case that is being watched carefully by many inventors.
Using his daughter’s toy microscope, Professor Shanks invented a glucose sensor, a simple and almost painless way for people with diabetes to measure the concentration of glucose in their blood.
His technological breakthrough is now used in diabetes testing kits used all over the world, and has generated anything up to £50bn. But Shanks, who is now retired, says he has never received a penny.
In the 1970s Ian Shanks became one of the leading scientists behind the development of liquid crystal display technology – which spawned billions of LCD watches, alarm clocks, computers and televisions. His publications also include the first research paper on 3D TVs. And in 1984 he became the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society, aged just 35. Over almost three decades, he submitted more than 70 patented inventions.
Shanks joined Unilever in 1982 and made his breakthrough soon afterwards. He took his discovery to his bosses and was informed that the invention belonged to the company. Unilever filed a patent on it, but showed little interest in developing it. And then in the 1990s Unilever sold off licences relatively cheaply to unconnected companies to make his device. And that’s when the big money came in.
The Patents Act of 1977 promises ordinary workers that if they invent something from which their employer derives an “outstanding benefit”, they are entitled to a “fair share”.
A lengthy legal battle has ensued, with Unilever initially arguing that because the invention was transferred to Unilever PLC from the subsidiary that was Shanks’s direct employer, the benefit to his employer was not more than a few thousand pounds. This was thrown out.
According to an independent expert engaged by Shanks’ legal team, if Unilever had asked for modest royalties on sales of blood glucose sensors over the life of the patent, it could have reaped more than $1bn. Instead, it earned £23m, which Unilever argues is hardly of “outstanding benefit” to such a big company
The case continues and it could be years yet before it is finalised. It would appear that Unilever has already spent considerable time and money defending a case that it could have settled for a share of £23M.
Everyone loves the idea of the inventor and the Eureka moment when a great scientific breakthrough occurs. But in the world of big business it seems that the glory of the discovery and the satisfaction of solving the problem are the best that inventors can hope for.