The Lemelson Foundation: Tinkerers Saving the World

Remember the kids who took apart broken machines--tape recorders, telephones, cuisinarts--in order to experiment with building machines? I knew one who invented a tooth fairy detector. Well, if those child inventors want to tinker when they get to college and graduate school, The Lemelson Foundation wants to make sure that they have the help they need to create new technologies that will save lives and preserve the environment.

Through its National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), The Lemelson Foundation provides small grants to students for the materials they need to create prototypes based on their concepts for new technologies. NCIIA also provides the training and mentoring for students and graduates to take their inventions from the "garage to the marketplace." In the past 15 years, NCIIA has funded 367 innovative product development projects that have resulted in 75 new businesses, 400 new jobs, and 45 patents.

"These businesses have leveraged more than $170 million in additional funding," reported Phil Weilerstein, Executive Director, NCIIA in a private interview with me. "NCIIA is for people who have a love of invention. NCIIA is science projects on steroids. We also help the inventors to frame their ideas in the context of market needs and to create a positive social impact." Below are three of the new technologies and businesses that NCIIA has spawned and some of the ways that they will change the world.

image OsmoPure. While participating in an NCIIA course and program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), David Perry had ideas for technologies that ultimately led to his developing OsmoPure. OsmoPure is a low cost water purification device based on simple membrane filtration technology. While taking the NCIIA course in 2009, Perry applied for and received an NCIIA "e-team" ("entrepreneurial team") grant of $10,500 for materials to build a prototype. Here's how the device works: To produce potable water, the OsmoPure user fills a used plastic bottle with dirty water, screws on the purifier like you would screw on a cap and squeezes the bottle to dispense clean water. Earlier this year, NCIIA featured Perry and his device at a prestigious exhibition. Just last month, Perry won a $100,000 prize at the MassChallenge. "OsmoPure was invented for people in developing countries," Perry told me in a private interview. "Our next step is to create partnerships with international aid organizations so that our product can be used for disaster relief worldwide."

image OneBreath, developed by Matthew Callaghan, is a low cost ventilator for general use in developing counties and emergency readiness in developed countries. According to NCIIA, millions of people die each year in developing countries from lack of access to ventilators; additionally, the U.S. has only 14% of the ventilators needed in the event of an influenza epidemic. "NCIIA's e-team grant of $19,000 in 2008 paid for the parts for the prototype," said Callaghan, who began the project while he was at Stanford University. "There are other sources for grants for science, but not for device development." Callaghan, who is now a medical resident, told me that the fun for him was in the tinkering and inventing. "I'm the person who says 'gosh, wouldn't it be great if people had ... ' Now it's for others to take OneBreath forward as a business."

image Solar Ivy. Sister and brother team Teresita and Sam Cochran developed and sell solar panels designed to resemble ivy vines. So stunning that you can see Solar Ivy exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, this new technology consists of flexible photovoltaic foil molded to look like ivy and piezoelectric generators acting as leaves. The Solar Ivy e-team, originating at Pratt Institute, received a grant of $14,700 in 2006 to devise a proof of concept and then create a product. "The NCIIA also provided us with training that was the equivalent to a crash course MBA," Sam Cochran told me in a private interview, "and they provided us with business coaches on entrepreneurship, and valuable introductions." The benefit of Solar Ivy in developing countries is its light weight and easy portability. And in Haiti, a prototype of Solar Ivy is being installed for its value in disaster relief; you can hang it from a tree, and it can provide power for water purification, power phones, and of course light.

"Innovation drives the economy. That was my father's conviction," declared Robert Lemelson, Ph.D., Co-Vice President and Secretary of The Lemelson Foundation that was founded by his father, Jerome H. Lemelson. "My father was a prolific inventor with 650 patents." In a private interview, Lemelson spoke passionately about his father's vision for the foundation, and his brother Eric's involvement as well. The foundation states that it is "dedicated to improving lives through invention." Lemelson described key innovators and technological movements that have served human good over the past 250 years, and the foundation's commitment and various programs to propel further innovation and invention--The Lemelson-MIT Awards for Innovation and Invention among them.

Expanding Globally. Through its membership of nearly 200 colleges and universities throughout the U.S., NCIIA engages more than 5,000 student and faculty entrepreneurs each year. Expanding its reach globally, NCIIA announced a commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative Sixth Annual Meeting 2010 to build a network of more than 100 universities around the world to train and equip the next generation of Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) students to stimulate the development and distribution of innovative scalable products and businesses. This new initiative--the Global Innovation Initiative--will impact universities in Africa, Asia, Central North and South America.

The eight year old who invented the tooth fairy detector might well be inventing tomorrow's life saving devices.

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