French physicist and inventor Jacques Lewiner

18 November 2015

4iP Council meets renowned French physicist and inventor Jacques Lewiner, Laureate of the French Academy of Sciences and Knight of the ‘Légion d’Honneur’.

Jacques Lewiner is one of the most famous living inventors in France. He is Professor and Honorary Scientific Director of The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI ParisTech), an Institution he describes as a mini-Stanford. He is also Chairman of the ESPCI Georges Charpak Foundation, a venture that will foster research and industrial collaboration on multi-cultural [physics, chemistry and biology] bases. ESPCI ParisTech will be housed in a purpose-built campus (construction starts in 2017) in Paris's 5th arrondissement and is backed by the City of Paris, notably by Jean-Louis Missika, the city’s Deputy Mayor.

Lewiner has filed over 200 patents, many of which have led to industrial development, either through licenses granted to industrial companies or through start-up companies. His works have been devoted to electrical insulators and particularly electrets, instrumentation and sensors, for instance, in medical imaging, or on the improvement of telecommunication networks. Technology oriented start-up companies he is involved in having created include Inventel, specialising in Telecommunications, Finsécur which develops and markets fire detection systems, Sculpteo, which is an online 3D-printing platform and Cynove in embedded electronics devices. Most of these companies have experienced strong growth. Inventel, which was the French leader for multimedia gateways, was bought by Thompson SA (now Technicolor) in 2005.

Jacques Lewiner became a laureate of the French Academy of Sciences in 1990 and is a Knight in the National Order of the ‘Legion d’Honneur’, France’s highest decoration. He is also a member of the French Academy of Technologies, an Honorary Fellow of the Technion, Israel’s famed Institute of Technology, and in 2015 received the Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Israel’s fast growing Ben Gurion University.

4iP met Lewiner at his offices at ESPCI where he shared his experience as an inventor and as a mentor.

How have your path changing technology inventions come about?

It is almost impossible to forecast when an invention will be fruitful. People often ask which of my inventions I prefer. My answer is, ‘on what criteria?’ Is it the one that was the most scientifically beautiful? The one that created the most jobs? The one that saved lives or the one that brought most financial return? There is no unique definition of success for a patent.

When I was younger, we [Lewiner often patents with fellow researchers] came across a way to make polymers have piezoelectricity. We thought it would be revolutionary and filed the patent in many countries. For instance, we thought that it would be applied to the car industry. At that time, seatbelts were being installed in cars and it was necessary to detect a passenger not having fastened his seatbelt while seated. Just detecting weight on a seat was not enough as this could be a suitcase or a package and, if the case, would not justify ringing an alarm. We proposed using our piezoelectric sensors to detect not the weight but the breathing and heartbeat of the passenger, which of course, a suitcase would not do. The same invention seemed to be applicable to many other domains: baby security, road safety, intrusion detection, etc. In spite of such huge potential, the patent was never successfully used from the commercial point of view. A short-lived application was found in children's trainers for flashing LED lights. But even there, batteries proved a better solution.

How would you describe the level of risk you have taken with your inventions?

An invention is always associated with many risks. First there is the legal risk that your patent is not good or that you will not have freedom to operate. Then, there is the industrial risk: can your product be manufactured? Third, even if these two items have been cleared, maybe there is no market or you are too early or too late.

Every time I came home and told my wife that I had a good idea, she looked very worried [laughs].

The cost of patenting is substantial - not so much the filing - but the patent lawyer whose expertise is, in most circumstances, essential. It costs often more than 70,000 euros to register a patent correctly in Europe. Over the years, there have been improvements to the process such as one filing for Europe and the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which allows the inventor to delay payments, but it is still high risk.

Then, as of course already mentioned, you still have to manage the industrial and commercial risks.

How challenging was it to engage investors and what role have your patents played in this process?

The first question here is how to pay the patent filing costs? Either you take on the risk alone or you convince people to share it with you. In France, usually your employer owns and pays for the patent. If you work in a teaching or research institution, usually, your employer owns and pays the costs. In this case, in the event of a return and after the deduction of carried expenses, the inventor gets back almost 50 per cent. France is unique in offering researchers this high return but the problem is that the French culture is so far away from applications that people don't do it very often. Cultural prejudice is important in invention. In France, this culture is now changing.

The second question is, once you have the patents, how do you find an industrial partner to take on the commercialisation risks? It is not easy to convince industrial partners. Either you do it yourself, as I do, or you work through a patent broker. Very often inventors say, 'I do the inventing, someone else will do the selling'. This is not efficient because no one understands the invention as well as the inventor does. It is his or her baby.

Of course, if you want to create a start-up company, in order to exploit your invention, you will usually need investors to put some money into your project. For that purpose, patents are essential. Indeed,

i) if your product is successful the patents will protect you from somebody who would have let you take all the risks (legal, industrial and commercial) and then copy your product.

ii) when investors carry due diligences on your company, the only tangible assets that they will find are the patents.

What do you need to convince investors?

As just mentioned, the investor will want to see your assets. The only things they can find are the quality of the team, the technology and the patents. This gives grounds for a discussion on value. This discussion is fair because if the investor puts money in, he/she also takes a risk. Without a patent, anyone could come and copy.

What do you need to convince industry partners?

In addition to a patent, you need a prototype, even if it is simplistic. You need to show that your invention works. The industry representative knows his industry. With the prototype, even if it is very basic, he can imagine how your invention is going to create a disruption in the technology.

Do you think the inventions you have been involved in could have come to commercial fruition without intellectual property?

No. I could not have commercialised my inventions without patents. As already mentioned, for the creation of a technology-oriented start-up and its development, the patent is beyond useful, it is a requirement. It is very hard to convince an investor if you do not have a patent. Moreover, the patents helps build up the value of your company.

In your experience, is the process of technology invention well understood (by policy-makers)?

Yes and no. Politicians like Jean-Louis Missika, deputy major of Paris, have a long-term vision but many tend to be short-term focused because they don't know how long they will be in their position and they want to show that they have achieved something during their tenure.

What is your view on policies that aim to weaken the patent system?

They are the wrong solution for a real problem. For instance, very often, drug companies are accused of being greedy because they don't give drugs in countries that cannot afford to buy them. My position is simple. It is scandalous to have people dying when they could have been saved using drugs that they couldn’t afford to buy. The right question is: who should pay? Is it the company that took the risk of developing the drug, undertook thousands of experiments, expensive tests and bore the cost of all failures? Or should a world social body deal with such an issue?

As with any human construction, the patent system is not exempt of misconducts. But globally speaking, it is an extraordinary tool. A good patent won't be undermined. If you kill the system, the consequences may be worse than the remedy; innovation would be constrained and funding start-ups would be a tough job. However, patent trolls should be controlled; small companies can hardly fight their requests for license payments.

An example of good patent use is the industry created consortium MPEG-LA and their ‘many-to-many’ licensing model. Patent owners transfer their rights to the consortium which in turn provides licenses to the industry on reasonable terms with a sharing of the profits to the patentees.

Are there in your view lessons to be learned from other world regions?

Yes, in the US we can learn from various centres such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT and in Israel in many places, for instance Technion. These Institutions transform research results into patents and patents into licenses and start-up creation. As an example, Azilect, a popular drug to treat Parkinson's disease was innovated at the Technion and Copaxone, a major drug for Multiple Sclerosis was initiated at the Weizmann Institute. Both drugs were manufactured and commercialised by TEVA, bringing very high returns to Technion and Weizmann Institutes.

How important is this issue today from an economic and social standpoint?

Innovation improves life. Humanity is built on knowledge discovery and transmission. This is the big advantage of civilisations. We transmit knowledge; we are building a system that improves life. Science and innovation have brought us progress. This cannot be disputed. Ask someone who thinks life was better one hundred years ago to undergo surgery without anaesthesia. They will soon agree that we have evolved positively.

What advice do you offer the inventors you encounter through your work at ESPCI?

  • Don't be afraid to go out of known paths, but remain rational.
  • Check that your idea doesn't go against basic laws of science (non-scientific inventors dream like all of us of perpetual motions...).
  • Patent your invention and build a prototype.
  • Don't disclose your invention until you have filed the patent. In both cases, try to know your partners to reduce the risk of misfits.
  • Don't do it alone and understand the importance of a team. My first failure was due to the fact that I wanted to do everything myself.
  • Accept failure. It is difficult when starting an adventure but failure can happen. However, you will have learned a lot of things.

What advice would you offer a European policy-maker today on the topic of innovation growth?

Support anything that fosters communication and interaction between different cultures, researchers, industry, people of different backgrounds: technology, sales, marketing, etc. This may lead to disruptive innovation. This is one of the goals I have set at ESPCI ParisTech with the Georges Charpak Foundation, by organising long-term interactions between laboratories and industrial partners. As an example, one of our industrial partners called me recently about a technology he had seen during a visit to the labs. A contract was then concluded, which has brought a disruptive technology solution to an old problem. This is an example of what can be produced by the mixture of cultures.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.