Invention Ambassadors Urge Others to Put Great Ideas Into Action

A trip to the ballpark can turn into a new way for people to experience baseball — at least it can if you are Lisa Seacat DeLuca.

Lisa Seacat DeLuca | colelladigital.com

DeLuca was attending a San Francisco Giants game with a friend who wanted to visit every baseball stadium in the United States. She started thinking, "why can't he change his experience during the event?" Then he could see the game from various spots, such as behind home plate and up in the nosebleed seats. Perhaps people could split their tickets, she thought, and she decided to patent her idea.

A technology strategist for IBM Commerce, DeLuca was familiar with the process of inventing and patenting an idea. Already she has nearly 400 patent applications filed and about 200 have issued, making her the most prolific female inventor in IBM history. But for her sports ticketing idea, she decided to go it alone, pursuing a patent without a lawyer. The path was difficult, she noted, and her patent was turned down twice, but she eventually succeeded, obtaining United States patent no. 8,589,192.

"All of us have an inventor inside of us, and it's possible to go out on your own and learn how to submit a patent application," she said.

DeLuca was one of 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.

Michael Smith (above) and Juan Gilbert | colelladigital.com

"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 that the program will foster a strong ecosystem for inventors as well as inspire a new generation of them.

"It's such a pleasure and inspiration to work with inventors. They are always thinking 'how can this be improved or life can be made better if we invent this process or product,'" said Yolanda Comedy, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

Invention ambassador Michael A. Smith, director of the Intel Software Academic Program and digital media architect at Intel Corporation, noted that outreach programs are important for inspiring new inventors. He got set on his path to innovation while still a high school student, when he went on a trip to Tuskegee University and got to see one of the first computer graphics systems. That inspired Smith to study electrical engineering at Tuskegee, and he would go on to develop a method for improving smartphone recognition of images and video, and technology to help Caribbean cacao farmers detect black pod disease.

Along the way, Smith said, he had to overcome "institutional norms" that can stifle innovation. These norms may steer people into safe career paths or limit the ability to take chances and rewards for doing so that could otherwise lead to solutions to big problems. Smith's path has involved eight start-ups, two of which have seen success, but he is most proud of the start-up venture that involved a new university in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

But, "this all started with a high school visit," he said. "Outreach does, in fact, matter."

The inventing path is full of hurdles. After the debacle of the 2000 election and its "hanging chads," for example, Juan Gilbert started working towards the development of a voting platform that could be accessible to everyone, including if they couldn't read, couldn't see, or didn't even have arms. But over and over he was told, "it can't be done," said Gilbert, the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and chair of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida.

Suzie Pun | colelladigital.com

Gilbert and his team persisted, though, and in September their Prime III voting system will be released as an open-source platform. The group is also working with New Hampshire to implement the system for use in the 2016 statewide election there. Ten years after Gilbert began pursuing this universal technology, voting machine vendors are now following suit, he noted.

"We have changed voting," he said. "Everyone will vote in the future on technology that we have either created or inspired."

Sometimes inventions can be the work of a single person, but more often collaboration is involved, noted Suzie Pun, the Robert F. Rushmer Professor of Bioengineering and adjunct professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, in a pre-recorded talk.

"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," she said.

Pun described her efforts to develop an "injectable tourniquet," a drug that could be given by emergency medical technicians to stop uncontrolled bleeding. Such bleeding kills many trauma patients before they reach the emergency room. With the drug now in development, "we're able to save lives," she said, "but we're only saving rat lives." Even getting that far, though, has taken a lot of collaboration.

The bubble CPAP machine developed by Rebecca Richards-Kortum and her colleagues is more affordable for developing countries. | Jocelyn Brown

Inventing can have many rewards, not just financial, speakers noted. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University, described her lab's efforts to develop a machine called a bubble CPAP. Half of babies born prematurely have difficulty breathing, but a bubble CPAP can help by blowing air and oxygen continuously into the baby's underdeveloped lungs, preventing collapse. The technology is common in developed countries, but its $6,000 price tag makes it prohibitively expensive in the rest of the world.

Richards-Kortum and her students worked to create a cheaper machine that is now used in health facilities in Malawi and elsewhere.

"I'll never forget the first time I saw 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 when they started on the CPAP, but even better was to see the relief on his mother's face."

Jay Harman (above) and Andrew Hessel | colelladigital.com

Each of the invention ambassadors drew inspiration from a different source, such as babies or hanging chads. Jay Harman, CEO of PAX Scientific, Inc. and PAX Mixer, Inc., has based his inventions on the shape of whirlpools and other spirals found in nature. His devices, which include fans, water mixers and water purification systems, have proven much more efficient that other technologies.

But he said he had to start his own company after the existing companies he reached out to couldn't figure out how to work with him and his unconventional technology. "We couldn't fit our key into their locks," he said.

Andrew Hessel, a distinguished researcher with the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group at Autodesk, Inc., and founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, drew inspiration from open-source software and the annual Burning Man event as he has worked towards personalized cancer medicines.

"If you see things that other people don't, they generally think you're crazy," he said. But, "if you see something that others don't, and a path to achieving it, you're not crazy. You could be a futurist, or really just be an inventor."