Inventing Solutions Through Diversity of Thought and Diversity of Experience

To round out the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors interviews conducted in Washington D.C. during the AAAS Annual Meeting, we spoke to three additional Ambassadors over the phone: including Rory Cooper.  We spoke to the Ambassadors about the importance of invention, the impact of their work, and what it has been like to be an Invention Ambassador. In this blog Rory describes his process of inventing and characteristics of a successful inventor. 

Dr Rory Cooper 

Invention has always, and continues to have, the potential to improve both the human condition, our planet, and our understanding of the universe.

Dr. Rory Cooper is currently FISA Foundation – Paralyzed Veterans of America Distinguished Professor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, in addition to being an adjunct Professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also Founder and Director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories of the University of Pittsburgh and US Department of Veterans Affairs. Having served in the army and receiving a spinal injury, Rory is now deeply invested in equality and inclusion, specifically focusing on inventing for those with disabilities. To this end, he is also Founder and Director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories of the University of Pittsburgh and US Department of Veterans Affairs, and a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Service. Holding almost 20 patents to his name and having received multiple awards for his work, Rory is passionate about getting as many people interested in invention as possible.

What inspired you to start inventing?

In my case probably necessity. When I was in school, my parents had an automotive machine shop and I liked to ride and modify motorcycles and bicycles. But for me, inventing really took off after I was injured. Frankly wheelchairs and other technologies were so bad that I couldn’t envision a life using that equipment without making changes. So I started designing and building better wheelchairs, devices to do things around the house, devices to travel, to allow me to participate in sports. When I was a student I went to all the engineering departments to see what I could learn, find who was willing to help me and even talk to companies to see what I could do to help them.

How did you develop your invention skills?

Early on my inventions were made of things that you could buy in a hardware store. I did a lot of projects with electrical conduit, PVC pipe, and different fittings. As I got more knowledgeable, I advanced to aluminum, chromoly steel, carbon fiber and other materials that I had to get assistance from other faculty and staff members at the university.

I also learnt a lot from collaborating with my friends who also have disabilities. But I think the larger part of my learning was from being an engineer at university. I did a lot of learning outside the classroom too. There were a lot of faculty members that were intrigued by the problems I was trying to solve, and were willing to help, so I learnt a lot through them. It was a lot of practical experience and general practice.

What do you think makes someone a great inventor?

First and foremost, inventors have to understand the problem, so I think diversity of thought and diversity of experience is really important. But there’s no single solution, no specific formula you can follow. You just need to make sure that you really understand the people you’re trying to help and the problems they have. 

Secondly, the ability to listen to other people from different areas of expertise and to integrate other areas of knowledge and technology into your solution. Listening is a hugely underrated skill.

Finally, just general exposure. I have my students participate in a lot of different competitions. Getting exposed to people who have ideas but don’t necessarily know how to solve them, is invaluable as it requires you to listen, distill and create. I don’t think there’s a formula to invention, but I think getting as much exposure as possible is one of the best ways to learn. 

So although there’s no official formula, do you have a process that you follow when you invent?

I do actually: Participatory Action Engineering, that’s my lab’s process. Basically we survey and talk directly to the consumer to identify needs, which we then use to brainstorm, storyboard, and make mock-ups. We’ll then set about testing; proof of concept prototypes to fully functional prototypes, to clinical demonstrations, to trials. That’s our process in a nutshell.          

Do you need a specific background to be an inventor?

I don’t think so. My students come from all sorts of backgrounds: Medicine, engineering, physical therapy, occupational therapy, business, law… I think anyone from any background can – and needs to – contribute because they all bring different perspectives. Inventors can come from anywhere, any discipline, they just need to be able to problem solve and collaborate.

Why did you choose to become an Invention Ambassador?

I wanted to get out the message about invention and I thought the program was a good mechanism to encourage other people to become inventors. And it is. Recognition helps encourage people to become inventors, to show people that inventors are in our society and demonstrate what they contribute. I also thought it was important to get inventors together and talk, share ideas and gain new perspectives, and learn something new.

What has been the most beneficial aspect to being an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador?

The connections to the other inventors, and the selection panel of the program has been great.

The committee that selects the ambassadors are people from: AAAS, USPTO, Lemelson, SBA, SBIR and all of them have been great people to get to know and exceedingly helpful. Meanwhile, being able to connect to the other ambassadors has been really great. They give feedback on ideas and help create opportunities to get my ideas out there to other people. It’s always invigorating to get a chance to talk to the other ambassadors and get to know what they’re working on, how they think of things. Having a community of inventors is a great knowledge bank.

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