Honoured by European Inventor Award

European Patent Office honours Robert Grass and Wendelin Stark, professors of chemical engineering for their research in DNA encapsulation. Their invention enables the storage of digital data for thousands of years and product tracing throughout supply chains.
Professors Wendelin Stark and Robert Grass, European Inventor Award winners 2021. (Photograph: European Patent Office)

“Billions of years ago, nature selected DNA as its hard drive to store all the information and instructions for life. Digital information can be easily translated into synthetic DNA and this has a lot of advantages,” says ETH Zurich professor, Wendelin Stark.

Patent inspired by nature and tech

In a virtual ceremony on Thursday evening, 17 June, the European Patent Office bestowed its 2021 European Inventor Award for Research on professors Robert Grass and Wendelin Stark for their research achievements in creating stable data storage in glass-encapsulated DNA. Stark is named in 24 European patents, and Grass in 13. They are also co-inventors in the European patent EP2831268, granted in 2018, for which they were nominated for the European Inventor Award.

“Grass and Stark demonstrate that an innovative, cross-disciplinary approach can produce technological advancements with potential benefits for many future generations to come, especially in light of the increasing digitalisation of every aspect of society,” said European Patent Office President António Campinos when he announced the professors as award finalists.

Robert N. Grass and Wendelin Stark – DNA-based data storage. (Video: European Patent Office)

“DNA has a really high storage capacity,” says Robert Grass. “A whole library can be stored in a really tiny amount of DNA for a millennia.” Grass, professor and chemical engineer and Professor Wendelin Stark, who heads up the Functional Materials Engineering Lab at ETH Zurich are pioneers of DNA encapsulation. Masterfully combining nature with patented technology, their invention provides a novel method for synthesizing digital data into artificial DNA. The process even includes coding for error-correction contributed by fellow ETH Zurich engineer and data scientist, at the time, Reinhard Heckel. The team also achieved error-free data recovery, even after environmental exposure tests that simulate the equivalent of thousands of years of storage.

Developing nanometer-sized glass beads with diameters 10,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper, the beads protect the DNA from the corrosive forces of nature in much the same way that amber protects fossilized insects. Their invention enables digital DNA storage for thousands of years, meeting challenging data storage needs as technology accelerates at an exponential rate.

Astonishing potential applications

Eager to demonstrate the vast potential applications of their novel technology, Grass and Stark partnered up with English band, Massive Attack to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their Mezzanine album by encoding it in DNA. The album’s DNA was also incorporated into spray paint used to create an artwork with literally thousands of DNA copies of the album embedded in the paint on canvas work. They also encoded in DNA the premiere season of the Netflix television series, Biohackers demonstrating the versatility of the technology.

The glass-encapsulated DNA storage method that the professors and their research team have been developing since 2012 has also been commercialised by the former doctoral students Michela Puddu and Gediminas Mikutis with the ETH spin-off, Haelixa AG which they co-founded in 2016. At Haelixa, DNA is being used to label products such as precious stones, gold, and even organic cotton, to ensure that product origins or working conditions - are traceable throughout the supply chain. Grass and Stark have also co-founded several other companies including ETH spin-offs TurboBeads LLC and hemotune AG.