Lemelson Foundation History

The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises in order to build a stronger US economy and create social and economic change for the poor in developing countries.

Founded in the early 1990’s by prolific independent US inventor Jerome Lemelson, his wife Dorothy and their children Eric and Robert and their families, the Foundation is directed toward ensuring a robust pipeline of inventors, inventions and invention-based enterprises. Additionally, the Foundation works to strengthen the ecosystem that cultivates inventors while also helping them to translate their ideas to inventions with impact. Read more about Our Founders, How We Work and Our Programs.

First Decade – Establishing Core US Programs

The Lemelsons believed invention and innovation were essential to American economic success and vitality. In establishing the Foundation, they envisioned a national program that would recognize inventors and support the translation of their inventions to products. It was their hope that the children of future generations in the US would aspire to be inventors and have the potential to turn their aspirations in to reality.

Do we want to become a country of sports players, or do we want to be a country as we have in the past – manufacturers of new products, scientists and engineers? It isn’t easy to get our young people interested in these fields – just so many people can enter sports and entertainment, and, while it’s entertaining to the population it doesn’t advance the lot of mankind.”  – Jerry Lemelson

With this in mind, the Lemelsons worked to establish three core programs in the US that support this philosophy:

  • The Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was established at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1995 as a means of exploring the role of invention in history and encouraging inventive creativity in young people.

    The Lemelson Center is endowed through a gift from The Lemelson Foundation, and is housed at the Smithsonian Institution – the world's largest museum and research complex.

  • The Lemelson-MIT Program, founded in 1993, recognizes outstanding inventors, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world problems, and enables and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention.

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university located in Cambridge, MA, that is an international leader in scientific and technological education and research with a strong entrepreneurial culture. Together, the Lemelson Foundation and MIT created the Lemelson-MIT prize, the largest cash prize in the world for an individual inventor.

  • VentureWell (formerly NCIIA) supports technology innovation and entrepreneurship in universities and colleges to create experiential learning opportunities for students and successful, scalable socially beneficial businesses.

    VentureWell was established as the NCIIA in 1995 with support from The Lemelson Foundation. They are a community of the leading thinkers in technology innovation and entrepreneurship in US universities and colleges.

Jerome Lemelson died in 1997, but his vision of the power of invention to improve lives continues to be realized through the work of The Lemelson Foundation and the ongoing work of the three core programs he helped start.

Second Decade – Establishing Developing Country Programs

As the end of the 20th century approached, The Lemelson Foundation’s Board realized that the Foundation’s philosophy and methods in inspiring, educating and incubating the next generation of inventors in the US could be extended to help the billions of people in developing countries living in poverty. So, in 2003, the Foundation hired its first Executive Director to assist in building a developing country program, while continuing to grow the Foundation’s portfolio of work in the US to strengthen our national program.

All his life, Jerry wanted to celebrate American invention. He felt it was what made this country strong. Now it’s time to turn to the rest of the world, to join with others to solve some of the most pressing problems of our global community.”  – Dorothy Lemelson

One component of the Foundation’s effort to use invention and innovation to create technologies addressing basic human needs and sustainable development was its creation of Recognition and Mentoring Programs (RAMPs), a concept developed with the help of an eminent panel of international advisors. These programs identify inventors working on the needs of communities at the “base of the pyramid” and provide mentoring support and funding for them as they launch enterprises to translate their ideas to products. While the term “RAMPs” is no longer in use, the Foundation continues to support the work that rose from the initial RAMPs in India, Indonesia and Peru, through partner organizations:

  • India: Villgro is an Indian nonprofit incubator of social innovation and enterprise. Villgro also works closely with the IIT-Madras, one of the premier engineering universities in India. The goals of the Foundation’s work with Villgro are to incubate and launch self-sustaining, scalable, invention-based businesses that serve the rural Indian poor in the agriculture, energy and health sectors. The partnership also promotes an ecosystem for invention in India through recognition, prizes and convening of key segments of the invention ecosystem, including inventors, students, media, investors and government.
  • Indonesia: In Indonesia, the Foundation works with two entities – Indonesia’s premier agricultural university, IPB, and Inotek, a nonprofit that promotes technology innovation for sustainable development in Indonesia. The two partnerships focus on incubating invention-based businesses serving Indonesian poor, training university students in invention and entrepreneurship, and seeding invention-based entrepreneurship courses in universities across Indonesia.
  • Peru: In Peru, the Foundation is partnering with NESsT, a US multinational nonprofit that works in Latin America and Eastern Europe to build capacity of social enterprise within those countries. The Foundation’s work with NESsT Peru focuses on incubation of invention-based social enterprises serving the needs of rural poor. It also promotes the Peruvian invention ecosystem via coordination and strengthening of regional universities and regional government in supporting and raising awareness of invention. Activities include establishing regional government programs focused on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, prizes for students whose theses explore inventions that can strengthen regional businesses, and national and regional innovation weeks promoting invention, innovation and entrepreneurship.

In addition to the early RAMPs program, the Foundation has also made exploratory grants in developing countries to support invention education, develop specific technologies, and to disseminate new technology products in communities. Such projects included support for solar lighting, irrigation technologies, and neonatal devices.

Entering the Third Decade – Maintaining the Vision

As the Foundation enters its third decade of invention-focused giving, we see that Jerome, Dorothy and the Lemelson families’ vision for the impact of invention is as important for today’s world as it was at the time of the Foundation’s launch.

Therefore, we remain committed to their vision and that of the Foundation’s Board in the dual goals of strengthening the US economy and helping the poorest of the poor in developing countries. With this in mind, we have focused our work to accelerate our impact on inspiring and educating inventors and supporting the launch of enterprises that take their ideas to impact, while building a strong ecosystem to support the progress of inventors in the future.

For more information about our approach, grantmaking process, and partnerships, see How We Work. For more on our specific approach and initiatives in the US and in Developing Countries, see Our Programs.