The Overlooked Importance of the Invention Ecosystem

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. We end our 10 part series with Karen Burg’s insights on the invention ecosystem.    

Karen Burg

I feel that all people are inventors but some people don’t realize it. Life is really difficult, you have to be inventive and creative to move through life; therefore, all people are inventors.

Karen Burg is both a Professor and the Harbor Lights Endowed Chair at the University of Georgia. A trained bioengineer, she holds eight patents, numerous awards and over 140 peer-reviewed publications. Karen is passionate about fostering an inventive and innovative culture across all industries. She is an advocate for diverse collaboration and encourages her students in their invention process.

Why is it important to foster invention across all industries?

If we don’t have inventors, technologies won’t change for the better, and that will have a negative social impact. If we don’t have enough inventors who are in different populations, who come from different areas and have different experiences, then we also have a problem. We need legislators to think about invention. We need scientists to think about invention. We need small business owners to think about invention. So it really takes constant advocating and nurturing to promote an entire invention ecosystem.

Currently there is a system where only specific people or industries, for example engineers, consider themselves inventors. I think for people in other industries, that can be a little bit off-putting. If they see the word entrepreneurship or invention, they don’t relate. This is problematic because certain jobs and industries, like engineering, have a focus limited to a specific area, which is usually technical. So, if we don’t have a full 360-degree view on invention provided by all industries, then we’re not going to move it anywhere. An invention is no good if we can’t actually make it impactful for those who need it.

What are the struggles that an inventor has to go through?

Let’s start with the fact that we encounter inventions probably about every second of the day, but we don’t realize it. We take things for granted, but yet everything we use was invented at some point. We should envision the struggle that an inventor had to undertake in order to make that product.

First, the struggle depends on an inventor’s ecosystem and his/her microenvironment. Across the board, an inventor has to wrestle with listening to people to make sure that the idea isn’t just something that he/she is excited about, it’s something that would actually work and create impact. He/she has to do a lot of work to find out what prospective customers think about the would-be invention. That requires a lot of time, and often a lot of travel – to be able to make sure the answers that they are receiving are diverse, significant and meaningful.

Plus, there’s probably the most obvious thing, which is finding money. Once the inventor figures out if there is a customer base, then how does he or she make a compelling argument to an investor for funding? Being able to convince someone to give you both time and money is a definite struggle. There’s any number of unexpected and expected challenges on a day to day basis that an inventor has to face. When we walk around objects in a day, we typically don’t think about those challenges. We just take it for granted that everything in our life exists as is and we don’t think with gratitude about the people that toiled behind the scenes to create those objects and technologies.

What are the benefits of being involved in a program like the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors?

One of the real benefits of the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Program is that each cohort brings together people from very different sectors of the invention ecosystem. Being able to network, not just with our own cohort, but the whole cadre of individuals is tremendously beneficial. The ambassadors are all extremely knowledgeable and highly networked people, all with the same – or very similar goals – all offering a helping hand. So the program has really offered an opportunity to meet individuals from different sectors, and not just meet individuals, but really understand their perspectives. We often fall into the trap of thinking that our own perspective is a reality for everyone. The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program, for me, was a huge reality check and constant reminder that all perspectives are different. The program really gives you the opportunity to synthesize and appreciate those different perspectives. This is incredibly valuable and necessary, and simply not possible through any other mechanism. To have a network that is representative of the entire breadth of the ecosystem is hugely powerful.