We sat down with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors while they were in Washington D.C. for the AAAS Annual Meeting. We spoke to each about the importance of invention, the impact of their work, and what it has been like to be an Invention Ambassador. One of the most prolific inventors in history, Rick Hamilton, explained how invention drives the economy, and the success of companies.
“The invention process and the need to continually innovate offers valuable lessons to many industry sectors so they can continue moving forward.”
Rick Hamilton is a Distinguished Engineer at Optum, a company dedicated to healthcare innovation. He currently has over 900 issued U.S. patents, and is recognized as the 20th most prolific inventor in world history. He is dedicated to encouraging an inventive culture across industries, particularly in healthcare, where he trains people to recognize and cultivate inventive ideas.
Why is invention important?
You can view the question of “why invent?” at either a macroscopic or microscopic level. At the macroscopic level, it’s what moves society forward. It’s what makes our lives easier than previous generations. At the microscopic level, at the corporate level, we recognize that somebody is going to disrupt every industry that exists today. Any responsible corporation will say, “how can we be the one that disrupts our industry?” So companies are increasingly leveraging emerging technologies, and asking themselves daily, “how can these help solve our business problems?”, which is something we are firmly committed to doing at Optum. For us, it’s about continuous innovation to improve patient outcomes and make the health system work better.
How can invention help the healthcare industry?
It’s changing the way that we provide healthcare. This has multiple meanings. Across the health span, it means that technology, that innovations, can make our state of well-being stronger. If a machine learning algorithm understands me, if it knows my habits, and can customize and personalize recommendations according to who I am, then I can stay healthier longer.
Once a health event occurs, such as sickness or injury, machine learning and other technologies can help pinpoint the right diagnosis more quickly than conventional methods. Once that diagnosis has been pinpointed, now treatment paths and care options can best be derived by innovative technologies. Beneath all this is the realization that healthcare in the US consumes about 18% of GDP. If we can eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies using advanced technologies, while maintaining the same or better outcomes, again, it’s a societal win. This is all being driven by new inventions, predominantly technological inventions, arising from the healthcare industry and from other established tech companies.
Why is it important to encourage invention?
The process of invention is often very mysterious. It seems shrouded, and there seems to be a black box that inventors live and operate in. To the degree that we can remove barriers, to unshroud the process; to the degree that we can show the world that, yes, anybody can do this, then we help everybody. You help the aspiring inventors, and you help society at large.
My whole career, I’ve benefited from mentors: people who’ve shown me possibilities for the road forward. Ultimately, of course, we have to find our own way, but to have people who can share life experiences and professional experiences makes that road easier. Having that encouragement and support helped me get to where I am today.
I currently work at Optum, a leading health services innovation company, where my work involves a lot of emerging technologies: genomics, machine learning, internet of things, cyber security, blockchain, and others. Here, it’s not just about interesting proof-of-concepts and science projects, but we have to continually focus on making a real difference in patients’ lives.
In my role, I work broadly with inventive activities across the enterprise. I train inventors daily, so encouraging invention is a world that I live in. With the Invention Ambassador Program, I find a chance to give back to people outside my own company and outside my own profession. I’m able to spread knowledge and encouragement, but also to be inspired by the work of others. It’s profoundly rewarding.
What do you value most about being a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador?
The greatest thing about this Program is the caliber of the people. Everybody has solved interesting problems and made an impact in their industry. They’ve created a lot of solutions that I would have never encountered without the Program. I’m continually amazed when I come to these gatherings and talk with people, and find out what they’ve done. I’m able to then process this and rise to a new level of holistic thinking about the way I accomplish my own job and engage in my own inventive activities. The Invention Ambassador Program brings people together, and allows ideas to cross-pollinate. It helps break down ‘barriers’ to invention, and shows that, yes, this is what inventors do, and this is how we move society forward.
I often find that people are solving problems I did not recognize existed. It provides a level of nuance, a level of understanding through these interactions that isn’t just professionally rewarding, but personally rewarding. The Program gives me a chance to grow as an individual, and to view the world in a richer–or more complex–manner than I did before. To understand how these brilliant people are identifying and solving problems is deeply and personally fulfilling.