Inaugural Class of Invention Ambassadors Highlights Need for Innovation

Inventors haven't always been appreciated in academia, but the ambassadors say their work has the potential to solve global challenges.
Vinod Veedu (left), Karen Burg, Paul Sanberg, Paul Stamets, Sorin Grama and the rest of the Invention Ambassadors share 150 patents among them. | AAAS/ Carla Schaffer

As a postdoctoral fellow at Carolinas Medical Center, Karen Burg was working on a project to develop a biological scaffold for women, upon which new cells could grow following a mastectomy or lumpectomy. As the engineer in her group, Burg realized that her colleagues didn't have the right materials to work with. She wound up sitting on the floor of a storage room, rummaging through old boxes of surgical instruments with her mentor and calling out ideas as they came to her.

"It was really a brainstorming session," recalled Burg, who is now the director of the Institute for Biological Interfaces of Engineering at Clemson University and will soon be a professor of chemical engineering at Kansas State University. "Without each other, we would not have been able to innovate. It was collaboration that led to that particular idea, and it was collaboration that allowed us to move forward and develop that idea."

Burg is one of seven creative and entrepreneurial minds in science in the inaugural class of Invention Ambassadors. Brought together in a new program from the Lemelson Foundation and AAAS, the celebrated inventors will spend the next 12 months highlighting the importance of scientific innovation around the world. The ambassadors will speak at public engagement venues throughout the year, to increase the global understanding of invention as well as its role in improving the quality of life and creating new products and businesses.

Inventors shouldn't forget to have a little fun, said Invention Ambassador Sanberg, who holds a patent on this windshield ornament. | Paul Sanberg

"Throughout the world we face substantial challenges that can only be effectively addressed if creative minds invent the products that will meet those challenges. We understand it is critical to cultivate a new and diverse generation of inventors who are inspired to be agents of change through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship," said Carol Dahl, executive director of The Lemelson Foundation. "Through our partnership with AAAS, we hope to recognize and equip today's great inventors so that they can serve as ambassadors to the next generation and help build a supporting ecosystem for invention."

The first class of Invention Ambassadors, who have approximately 150 patents among them, hail from various backgrounds — academia, industry and private companies — but they all share a commitment to strengthening the role of invention in environmentally sustainable ways. They were also all busy filing patents and turning late-night ideas into life-saving inventions at a time when inventors were often underappreciated by traditional researchers.

"We think of things like discovery, invention and economic development," said Yolanda Comedy, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity (CASEC). "All of these things are important to AAAS, but the invention part is something we haven't focused on in the past."

"There are a wide range of places from universities to organizations that appreciate the importance of innovation," she added, "and a lot of those places are interested in hearing about the unique role of inventors, and in making sure that we have the 21st century inventors that we need."

On 1 July, five of the Invention Ambassadors took the stage at the AAAS headquarters, to describe the scientific innovations that they capitalized on, as well as the lives they changed and the hardships they faced along the way.

"Many inventors are cherished in society, but in academic institutions that's not always the case," explained Paul Sanberg, an Invention Ambassador and the senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of South Florida. He holds more than 100 health-related patents in the area of neuroscience, and recently expanded into designing four newly patented wiper blade ornaments. "One of the problems in academia is a matter of perception…Most faculty and students don't understand the process of invention; inventors are just perceived as being different."

To draw some of the more creative minds out from behind the scenes at his university, Sanberg had created an "academy of inventors," and he had been surprised when 130 faculty showed up to the first meeting. He then worked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to establish a National Academy of Inventors, which today boasts 3,000 members, 200 research institutions, and a nationally recognized fellowship program.

Farmers pouring milk on the Rapid Milk Chiller, developed by Invention Ambassador Grama and colleagues, at a collection center in Tamil Nadu, India. | Promethean Power Systems

"Now, an inventor who wears this pin," he said, pointing to the academy's emblem on his lapel, "on many campuses is considered a rock star."

But, this change didn't occur overnight, as the rest of the Ambassadors likewise attested. The scientific community has long been guided by a "publish or perish" mentality, under which traditional researchers may feel compelled to simply apply for grants, serve on committees, and otherwise follow the norm.

Invention Ambassador Sorin Grama said that inventors should be addressing serious, real-world problems. The Romanian-born engineer saw his first invention come to life in rural India, where dairy farmers were struggling to keep their milk from spoiling without regularly supplied electricity. But his "eureka" moment was achieved in a rather roundabout fashion: The solar system that he and his partners designed to keep milk cold on dairy farms was simply not economical and efficient enough.

"After we eliminated the solar power, what rose out of the ashes was this energy storage device — the actual solution to our problem," he said. "That was the moment we realized that we had actually developed something, but we didn't see it until we eliminated the thing that was blinding us."

Mycologist Paul Stamets, the founder of Fungi Perfecti and Host Defense Organic Mushrooms, is another Invention Ambassador with unique, on-the-ground experience. While exploring old-growth forests in the U.S. Northwest, Stamets became fascinated by mushroom mycelium, or the branching, thread-like filaments of fungi, which in turn inspired multiple patents for mushroom-related technologies.

"I'm really honored that AAAS recognizes me, an advocate for and defender of nature," he said. "It's great that AAAS has the scientific wisdom to recognize the complexity of that which we don't know, but that which is implied in our biospheres, and the need to pay attention to it."

The nanobrush created by Invention Ambassador Veedu and colleagues has been certified by the Guinness World Book of Records as the smallest-ever brush. Each bristle is thousands of times thinner than a human hair. | Vinod Veedu

Growing up in India, ambassador Vinod Veedu believed that his only career options were to become an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer. However, his personal interest in nanotechnology — and a genuine desire for fun — led him around the world, from lab to lab, until he arrived at a new method of growing carbon nanotubes.

After his first invention, Veedu appeared on a number of radio shows and even struck a local TV deal helming a show titled, "Weird Science with Dr. V." Now, he is the director of strategic initiatives at Oceanit and he says it doesn't matter where AAAS and Lemelson send him to speak.

"My interest lies in bringing innovation to reality and connecting with people at different levels of community and society," he said. "I'm very excited to speak to anybody about invention and use any opportunity I can get to popularize science."