Invention Ambassadors Challenge Others to Follow Innovation

Science Magazine
Sarah Zielinski
31 July 2015

Sarah-Zielinski

Successful inventors need more than a fabulous idea. They also need inspiration, great collaborators, and a lot of persistence, said seven new AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors introduced 14 July at the “Celebrate Invention” event at AAAS.

The ambassadors program, entering its second year, is a joint effort of AAAS and The Lemelson Foundation. “We began this partnership with AAAS, as we had a mutual belief in the power of invention to improve lives and create a better tomorrow, what we like to think of as ‘impact inventing,’” said Carol Dahl, executive director of The Lemelson Foundation. Dahl hopes the program will foster a strong ecosystem for inventors as well as inspire a new generation of them.“All of us have an inventor inside of us,” said Lisa Seacat DeLuca, the most prolific female inventor in IBM history. But the inventing path is often full of hurdles. Juan Gilbert of the University of Florida has been developing a universally accessible voting system. Over and over, he was told, “it can’t be done,” Gilbert said. But he and his team persisted, and in September their Prime III voting system will be released as an open-source platform.

A machine that helps babies born with underdeveloped lungs is prohibitively expensive in developing countries, so a team led by AAAS-Lemelson Ambassador Rebecca Richards-Kortum developed a cheaper alternative. Sometimes, inventions can be the work of a single person, but more often, collaboration is involved, noted Suzie Pun of the University of Washington: “You should realize that in most of these cases, it’s not just one person, but it’s a whole team of collaborators making these technologies available.” Inventing can have many rewards, not just financial, speakers noted. Rebecca Richards-Kortum of Rice University described her lab’s efforts to develop a cheaper bubble CPAP, a device used to help premature babies breathe. Her group’s machine is now used in health facilities in Malawi and other developing countries. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw a baby who went on treatment with a device that had been developed by our team,” she said. “It was really an amazing moment to see how much that baby just relaxed…but even better was to see the relief on his mother’s face.”Inspiration for these inventions came from sources as varied as hanging chads and sick infants. But getting from idea to invention can be a challenge. “If you see things that other people don’t, they generally think you’re crazy,” said Andrew Hessel of Autodesk, Inc. and the Pink Army Cooperative. But, if you also see a path to achieving it, “you’re not crazy. You could be a futurist, or really just be an inventor.”