Wanted: More Women Inventors to Save the World

With such great need around the world for clean drinking water, safe housing, renewable energy, disaster relief, biomedical devices, and so on, we need inventors to build solutions and bring them to market. Unfortunately, it turns out that we might be missing out on talented young men, and even more women, who would be--but who are not--considering careers as inventors.

Young Women Do Not See Themselves as Inventors

Few of the young women, ages 16 - 25 who consider themselves creative, the characteristic they most associate with inventors, would also describe themselves as inventive; the numbers are somewhat better for young men. This is according to the latest annual Lemelson-MIT Index that gauges Americans' perceptions about invention and innovation. "Further demonstrating inventive traits, young women [42%] show a strong affinity for math and science," according to the Lemelson-MIT Program website. "The results reveal young women's innate interest in inventive fields; however ... less than ten % earn their college degrees in technical majors such as computer and information sciences, engineering or math. This proportionately small group indicates a need to educate women about translating their skills and academic interests into inventive careers."

Lessons From the Field

"My dad is an engineer and my grandfather and uncles were engineers, but I never thought I would study engineering," Patricia Compas told me in a private interview. "I was strong in math and science, but I wanted to help people, so I was thinking of psychology. Then I talked with a couple of women engineers at my dad's company. That's when I realized that with engineering, I could save the world."

Today, Compas is co-inventor of the DayOne Waterbag™ and founder of DayOne Response, Inc. Once the waterbag, which was designed for disaster relief, was field tested by the U.S. Navy in Thailand, the U.S. Navy contracted with the company for waterbags. The next step is larger scale manufacturing of the waterbags with the company's new partner, Cascade Designs. DayOne is also a finalist for the Unreasonable Institute and a semifinalist for Echoing Green.

Teresita Cochran cofounded Solar Ivy with her brother Samuel in 2005; they were joined by architect Benjamin Howes in 2006. Today, their company sells solar panels designed to resemble ivy vines. This new technology consists of flexible photovoltaic foil molded to look like ivy and piezoelectric generators acting as leaves.

"Experimenting began for me at New York University Tisch Interactive Technology Program (ITP). Being curious about solar and wind power, I was testing wind turbines on the top of the building," shared Teresita Cochran in an interview with me. "And since there were no interest groups for people interested in sustainability or eco-consciousness, I formed SMIT--Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology, a small group that's turned into a highly-subscribed, global listserv."

Keys to Success

Compas's and Cochran's success is instructive. Clear themes emerged in the stories that the women shared with me.

  • Role models: When Compas met the two women engineers when she was still in high school, "they didn't make it a big deal. They encouraged me to pursue a college degree in engineering, and assured me that opportunities would be there for me." Compas took their advice and attended CalPoly, where she majored in civil and environmental engineering. There she met women faculty members as well as men.

For Cochran, Red Burns, the Director of NYU ITP was a role model. She is a "firecracker. The word 'no' is not in her vocabulary. If you have an idea, she'll tell you to find a way to do it."
  • Volunteer organizations and associations: Both Compas and Cochran were deeply engaged in service organizations. Compas founded the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders at CalPoly, partnering with international communities on water treatment and sanitation projects. This experience was pivotal in Compas's decision to find a solution to address the need for clean water. She also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity during a time when her family lived in South Korea.
Cochran worked with AmeriCorps after high school, where she helped set up a wildlife habitat. In graduate school, she established SMIT. She also volunteered at the Lower East Side Girls Club where they were setting up a LEED certified building.
  • Educational environments: Compas described the very positive environment at CalPoly. "Gender was not an issue." Similarly, Cochran described the environment at NYU ITP. "People came from diverse backgrounds, of all ages. It was the perfect environment for me. As long as you had the drive, gender didn't matter."
  • Support and funding: Both women reported they would not have been able to transform their concepts to prototypes and then transform their inventions into business enterprises without the support, encouragement, training, mentoring, guidance, and funding grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). In both cases, their schools--NYU ITP and Pratt--linked the women to NCIIA.
NCIIA provides small grants to college and graduate students for the materials they need to create prototypes based on their concepts for new technologies. NCIIA also provides intensive training and mentoring for students and graduates to take their inventions from the "garage to the marketplace." In the past 15 years, NCIIA has helped launch 100 companies; those 100 companies have earned a further $140 million in capital since receiving NCIIA funding.
  • Training in business and entrepreneurship: Both women reported having participated in training bootcamps at NCIIA where they learned how to transform their inventions into business enterprises and attract venture capital. "NCIIA encouraged me to start a business," said Compas. "I wouldn't be where I am today without NCIIA," Compas added.
Cochran had similar comments and also noted how valuable NCIIA's preparation was for her in developing and practicing her presentations to venture capitalists. "Actually, in math, science, and engineering, I had not encountered gender bias. You are judged based on what you can do. In meeting with business people, I was taken aback that they'd look to my male colleague who was an advisor rather than looking at me who was the CEO of the company and there to present. Or they'd look to my brother, my partner, if we were together. I realized how rare it is to be a woman CEO and quickly had to learn how to command attention."
  • Boosters and connectors: Both women had key boosters and connectors at important moments in their lives. For Compas, there was Tryg Lundquist, her professor at CalPoly, who had the original idea of creating a waterbag. There were also two Bill's. President Bill Clinton who congratulated Compas in person on stage at the 2008 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting; CGI had provided some early funding along with NCIIA to build the prototype and field test the waterbag in Nicaragua. There was also Bill Varnava at the Office of Naval Research, an alumnus of CalPoly who reached out to Compas about field testing the waterbag in Thailand and ultimately make the first order.
For Cochran, there was Debera Johnson, head of the Pratt Design Incubator, where Teresita developed the business plan, while her brother Sam built the prototype, and where they were introduced to NCIIA; David Rose, one of their advisors; and her "strong, dynamic, creative mother who came here from India."

Lemelson Foundation: Innovation Drives the Economy

"Innovation drives the economy. That was my father's conviction," declared Robert Lemelson, Ph.D., Co-Vice President and Secretary of The Lemelson Foundation. 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.

One is the Lemelson-MIT Program, inspiring students and rising inventors through various outreach initiatives, including rich educational materials and innovative grants for high school students. The program, headed by executive director Joshua Schuler, also honors inventors who create solutions for global problems.

Another Lemelson initiative that you read about above is NCIIA. "If women are not participating in this part of the economy, it's our loss," said Phil Weilerstein in reaction to the results of the latest Lemelson-MIT Index. Weilerstein is the executive director of the NCIIA and he made his comments in a private interview with me last weekend. Weilerstein recommends that "We'll increase the number of women inventors by addressing this way upstream, in grades K-12. We also need to look at this from a social network point of view. People do what they feel empowered to do, so mentors, advisors, faculty, and peer groups are key influences."

At this week's State of the Union address, President Obama stressed the value of science and math education, as well as innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship. By proactively encouraging and supporting young women as well as young men to explore these areas of interest, we will build a better world.

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1 Comments

  • Lisa B Eisenbud

    Thanks Alice for this feature which will surely inspire bigger dreams and a better planet! From the team at go GIRL global