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Invention Ambassador Program Showcases Next Generation of Innovation

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The 2017-2018 group of AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors respond to the following question: "If time and money were no object, what invention would you pursue and why?" | Neil Orman/AAAS

Jason Kang was eight years old when he began sketching out an invention that he hoped to pursue someday, a daily practice that, he says, left him with “a mountainous stack” of drawings in his bedroom.

Kang’s ideas included a design for a “Jetsons”-era hover car. Another creation envisioned dropping an edible chemical compound into a tea cup that would automatically heat the water surrounding a tea bag through the release of exothermic energy as the chemical compound dissolved.

“The tangibility of inventing a product is what really got me hooked,” he said, adding that the promise of doing something that could improve someone’s life was a driving attraction.

Kang is among eight participants in the 2017 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program, a partnership between the American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Lemelson Foundation, which was established to celebrate the importance of invention and cultivate a diverse generation of inventors.

Each fall potential ambassadors apply or are nominated to take part in the program that places no educational or patent requirements on participants. In its fourth year, participants are judged based on several factors, including their invention track record and experience or interest in communicating with audiences through speaking engagements.

The 23-year-old Kang, a recent graduate of Columbia University with a degree in biomedical engineering, is the youngest inventor selected to take part in the program.

This year’s ambassadors were invited to travel to AAAS’ Washington headquarters on July 19 for a three-day orientation session, during which they presented their inventions to the public and attended sessions describing federal agencies and programs that can help inventors.

The program gave participants an opportunity to speak with members of Congress, as well as representatives from federal agencies such as the Patent and Trademark Office and the Small Business Administration.

“Much of what the ambassadors hope to do is influence policy, specifically in the invention landscape,” said Neela White, senior program associate with AAAS’ Education and Human Resources department and one of the managers of the Invention Ambassadors program.

This year’s orientation featured a visit from Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., a physicist and entrepreneur who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Foster shared his background as an inventor-turned-lawmaker and fielded questions from the ambassadors.

Foster urged ambassadors interested in getting involved in public policy at a local, state or national level to pursue that route, saying scientists and those with technical backgrounds can have a positive impact at any level.

“It turns out there’s a big advantage to having technically competent people on a school board,” said Foster.

Participants also were provided training in public engagement that helps ambassadors frame a compelling narrative about their invention and best communicate the value of it to the public. The program culminated in a “Celebrate Invention” event on July 20 during which the ambassadors presented their creations to the public and also had an opportunity to “showcase who they are to a public audience,” White said.

Each ambassador prepared and delivered an up to 12-minute presentation, in which they described one of their inventions and its significance for society.

Some of this year's ambassadors were drawn to the program by the prospect of spending time with other inventors. "Being part of this program allows me access to the tribe," said Diana Yousef (bottom right). | Neil Orman/AAAS

During his public presentation, Kang focused on an invention that grew out of a design challenge Columbia University held in 2014. The event invited students, faculty and staff to develop strategies that could be used to respond to the Ebola crisis.

Kang’s invention aims protect healthcare workers and patients who use disinfectants by ensuring that the disinfectants are applied for an amount of time sufficient to kill pathogens like C. difficile.

Additives mixed into disinfectant solutions turn the mixtures a different color. After 10 minutes, the recommended amount of contact time for a disinfectant to effectively treat a contaminated surface and succeed in decontaminating it, the color fades, Kang said.

The project led Kang and some friends to set up their own company, called Kinnos, which was established to sell their product.

For Kang, the event presented an opportunity to apply his scientific skills to a pressing medical emergency facing people in Africa.

“I don’t think I or any of my co-founders expected to spend the prime years of our lives working on disinfectants;” said Kang said during his presentation, “But we were all deeply passionate about healthcare and medicine and we could empathize with the people who were suffering.”

White said that the Invention Ambassadors program is meant to encourage such an outlook on innovation, which she described as “inventing to solve global problems.”

Diana Yousef and Huda Elasaad took a similar approach in developing a portable, waterless toilet for use by those without sewage systems in under developed countries.

Yousef’s science background is in chemistry and structural biology. However, while she was working toward her Ph.D., she began to consider other ways to apply her expertise. “Some part of my brain kept wandering to what was happening in developing countries and how I could use my skillset to help,” said Yousef.

Now, Yousef and Elasaad have become the first team of inventors to take part in the Invention Ambassadors program.

White said that selecting Yousef and Elasaad as ambassadors allows the program to highlight a side of invention that the program had not previously explored.

“Invention can be a one-man-in-a-garage sport, but many times it’s a team product,” said White.

Yousef, whose recent work experience has been related to business and finance, said she and Elasaad complement one another with their unique skills.

“She’s an engineer, she builds things,” Yousef said. “I would be nowhere if I didn’t have a partner like that.”

Elasaad agreed and emphasized the value of team innovation, explaining that “you just don’t have to do it alone anymore,” then adding, “There’s a huge benefit to partnering with people and having that synergy.”

White is hopeful the Invention Ambassadors program can continue to nurture a sense of community among innovators and provide an environment that encourages ambassadors to work together.

“It would be my dream for these inventors to get together and collaborate to invent something for the global good,” said White.

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron]