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British inventors enter 122-year-old French contest for first time

The UK delegation takes their design talent from TV’s The Apprentice to the prestigious Concours Lépine in Paris

The Concours Lépine during the Foire de Paris from April 27 to May 8, allows inventors to put their creations into the spotlight Pic: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

France’s annual inventors’ contest returns to Paris this month and, for the first time in its 122-year history, will feature a delegation from the UK.

Between 450 and 550 inventors from around the world are expected to present their creations at the Concours Lépine during the Foire de Paris from April 27 to May 8.

Since its creation in 1901, the contest has featured such innovations as the first steam iron (1921) and, in 1931, a potato masher from Jean Mantelet, who would go on to found Moulinex to market his many kitchen gadgets.

More recent inventions include a wheelchair that clips on to an electric scooter.

Read more: Low turnout as Paris says ‘non’ to electric scooters

‘Invention responds to a need’

To be eligible, inventions must have a patent or other intellectual property right, with at least a model or prototype. There is also an ethical aspect behind the choice of entries.

Competition director Barbara Dorey said: “The very idea of invention is to help evolve humanity. It must be a positive evolution.” 

The objects presented often reflect contemporary concerns: there has recently been an environmental element to many designs, and the top prize in 2021 went to a coffee table that transforms into a home working station.

“An invention does not create the need, it responds to a need,” Ms Dorey said. 

“This year, for example, two different inventors will present an anti-flood invention.” 

Read more: MAP: Warning of insurance issues as flood-risk zones in France expand

Team of ten British inventors have entered contest

The competition allows inventors to put their creations into the spotlight and compete more for recognition than financial prizes.

The most prestigious prize is the Prix du Président de la République, which comes with a porcelain vase from the historic Sèvres factory, gifted by the Elysée. 

Delegations from Taiwan, China and Poland return most years and this year, there is also a group of 10 British inventors, led by Innovate Design.

The Franco-British company is a regular presence during the fair, as it is one of the competition’s partners. 

It created a smart toothbrush prototype for a team on Series 16 of the BBC’s The Apprentice. 

“We are proud because it’s great to have British inventors come to us,” Ms Dorey said.

Individual inventors from the UK have previously participated in the competition, but this will be the first time there is a full delegation.

Inventing is still male-dominated

More progress is needed to make the competition truly representative of society.

“Unfortunately, inventing is a male-dominated world,” said Ms Dorey, who points to historical explanations, such as the fact a married woman in France was not allowed to open a bank account without her husband’s approval until 1965. 

This imbalance is visible in the competition’s history.

“Even if a woman had an idea, it was generally the husband who filed the patent in his name. 

“I am talking about last century, but it says a lot about our evolution, as things have not changed that much.

Read more: A French perspective on sexism to mark International Women’s Day

Banks slow to fund female led projects

“Today, around 3% of participants in the Concours Lépine are women. We have female co-inventors, but not enough women lead a project from A to Z up to the point of participating in the Concours Lépine.”

Women often come up with ideas but quickly face hurdles securing funding. 

“It seems that banks are a little more hesitant when it comes to financing female projects.”

France is responsible for many inventions

Here are  just a few:

Stethoscope: Everyone knows about Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie,  but another Frenchman had a lasting impact on medicine worldwide, as René Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816.

Scooter: It might be associated with Italy, but French brand Auto-Fauteuil created what is widely considered the first scooter in 1902, featuring an armchair instead of a saddle.

Metric system: A decimal system of measurement was first introduced in France in the 1790s, a pure product of the Enlightenment.

Bikini: Just one of the ways in which France has had an indelible influence on fashion. The modern bikini dates back to 1946, when engineer Louis Réard unveiled a two-piece swimsuit that exposed the wearer’s navel, so women could tan more easily.

Braille: The writing system for visually impaired people was created in 1824 by Frenchman Louis Braille, who was blinded at the age of three, and is now used the world over.

Also: VAT, the modern bra, the  bayonet, the left-right political divide, preserving food in airtight containers...

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