Joseph Bille’s development of the technology that underpins personalized laser eye surgery has won the University of Heidelberg researcher and entrepreneur a “lifetime achievement” award from the European Patent Office (EPO).
At the EPO’s annual “European Inventor Awards”, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, on June 14, Bille was recognized for more than three decades of work on wavefront correction techniques that have revolutionized the field of vision correction, created several start-up companies and now employ around one thousand people around the world.
Laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK), the most common method of refractive eye surgery to correct common defects such as myopia, was a relatively crude technique when first introduced in 1989. But thanks in large part to research work covered in patents filed by Bille, LASIK has evolved into a “tailor-made” technology, where the precise re-shaping of a patient’s cornea is determined in much greater detail with the use of aberrometers to measure tiny defects, known as higher-order aberrations, in each eye.
Subsequent developments have included all-laser LASIK - where femtosecond laser pulses are used in place of the traditional knife to create a “flap” under which the cornea is re-shaped, meaning more precise vision correction – and more recently the emergence of femtosecond laser cataract surgery, which is set to open up a much larger market for the technology.
In his acceptance speech after winning the award (see video below), Bille said that he and his colleagues had tried to convey an atmosphere of entrepreneurship at Heidelberg. As well as five start-ups with which Bille was directly involved, his former PhD students have started up another twenty firms.
"We described ourselves as the 'tip of the arrow' [Pfeilspitze]," Bille said. "Because we saw each other as a group of young people who can change the world."