Don’t be afraid to take risks and think big- Chemist Sumita Mitra

The European Patent Office (EPO) honoured Indian-American chemist Sumita Mitra with the European Inventor Award 2021 in the “non-EPO countries” category. Mitra was the first to successfully integrate nanotechnology into dental materials to produce stronger and more aesthetically pleasing fillings, which are now used by dentists around the world.

The 2021 European Inventor Award ceremony was held digitally on June 17 and, for the first time, was open to the public who tuned in to the event from around the world. The Award, one of Europe’s most prestigious innovation prizes, is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and beyond who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth. The finalists and winners in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement) were selected by an independent international jury.

Who is Sumita Mitra?

Sumita Mitra is a partner at Mitra Chemical Consulting, LLC, a company she set up with her husband after leaving 3M in 2010, and which advises companies on new technology development, product design, commercialisation, mergers and acquisitions. She was named an American Chemical Society Hero of Chemistry in 2009, inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2018 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2021 for her work related to inventions in nanotechnology for use in dental materials. Other awards include a Hollenback Memorial Prize from the Academy of Operative Dentistry (2020); a Peyton-Skinner Award for Innovation in Dental Materials from the International Association of Dental Research (2012); and a Top 25 Women in Dentistry Award (2010). Mitra was elected to the 3M Carlton Society in 1998 – the highest 3M award given for lifelong contribution to R&D. 

Sumita Mitra
Sumita Mitra

Sumita Mitra’s work- Nanotech innovation transforms dentistry

While working in the oral care division of US multinational 3M in the late 1990s, Mitra became aware of the limitations of existing materials used in dental fillings, which were either too weak to be used on biting surfaces, or quickly lost their polish. At the same time, nanotechnology was emerging as a field of research and Mitra decided to explore how these new developments could be applied to dentistry. She began working on nanotechnology-based solutions for a new dental material, driven by a desire to use her expertise in polymer chemistry and materials science to develop inventions that solve real-life problems.

Mitra and her team developed a technique for creating linked clusters of nanoparticles, which they called ‘nanoclusters’. These clusters combine single nanoparticles of varying diameters, resulting in a strong, durable and shiny material. By adding tiny amounts of pigment, and altering the chemical composition of the nanoparticles, the team was also able to create a range of different shades that can be matched to individual teeth, and layered to create a more natural finish. "The use of nanotechnology gave me the opportunity to make a new material," says Mitra. "It restores peoples smiles and improves the quality of their lives".

Following this successful development process, Mitra worked closely with 3M’s patent attorneys to draft the patents to protect her ground-breaking research. Although several new generations of the material have been developed since its launch in 2002 as FiltekTM Supreme Universal Restorative, the current line of products is still based on Mitra’s European patents.

The enduring legacy of Mitra’s work can be seen in the fact that 3M was named as one of the top three manufacturers of global composite fillings in the dental restoration market in 2019. Although she retired from the company in 2010, the success of her technology continues with products based on her inventions used in over one billion tooth restorations worldwide to date. Mitra herself continues to contribute to research and development through her own consulting company. In addition, she enjoys volunteering at schools and colleges, passing on her enthusiasm for science to young people: “Curiosity and exploration are the essential points of starting an innovation. It is something that we really need to cultivate in our children,” Mitra says. 

She believes that we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and think big in our area of work. 

Millennial talent 

Sumita Mitra believes that the Asian region has a huge pool of talent when it comes to science and technology. “In India the training received at the good schools and colleges is world class. I still draw upon the fundamentals that were so well taught when I was in high school and college in India. Encouragement in the post-collegiate level to pursue these areas and providing adequate opportunities for employment would be the key to harnessing the talent for innovation and technological progress” says Sumita. 

According to her, key drivers of innovation in the field of healthcare are improvements in materials technology including nanoscience, information technology - better access by all segments of the population, big data and artificial intelligence, and gene editing plus precision medicine.

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