By Carol Dahl, Executive Director
I recently met an amazing set of entrepreneurs who are tackling a dizzying array of challenges: developing systems to allow impoverished families in poor countries to heat and pressurize water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning; creating a lawnmower-type machine that harvests and converts crops directly into biomass pellets for fuel; and inventing improved medical devices like chest tubes and spinal probes to save time, healthcare costs, and patient suffering.
You might think I was at SXSW or a high-level Silicon Valley gathering, but I was attending our grantee VentureWell’s annual Open Conference in Washington, DC. The innovators I met were college students just starting their careers, not serial entrepreneurs. These students were motivated by the power to create positive change through impact inventing and the potential of entrepreneurship to transform their groundbreaking ideas into real products. Armed with specialized training, business acumen, and persistence, they are at the start of a long and intentional journey to change the world.
The Lemelson Foundation’s 20 years of experience investing in impact inventing has taught us a great deal about how inventors are cultivated and invention-based businesses are created. We see every day that youth – both in the US and developing countries – have huge potential to invent and bring their products to market. Young people who are captivated by innovation as students often become serial inventor entrepreneurs, dedicating their careers to creating tangible things that make our lives better.
What does it take to create impact through invention?
First of all, inventors need to be able to identify a problem worth solving. Creative minds can consider all sorts of questions; we need them to be focused on problems of consequence. The world today faces substantial challenges such as the increasing demand for energy, inequities in access to health, and food security for the future. We believe inventions can address these challenges.
Once inventors identify problems worth solving, they must know how to solve them. This involves technical training and skills that can come from disciplines as diverse as engineering, science, design, and business. Students also need access to materials, tools, and facilities to support invention and prototyping, and consider the long-term impact of their inventions on the environment. These resources help transform their concepts into products that solve real problems.
Last, young inventors need to bring entrepreneurial thinking so they can understand how ideas and inspiration can lay the foundations for products that reach people and financially self-sustaining businesses that deliver them. Inventors must be able to identify the market value of their innovation, articulate their competitive position in the market, develop and validate a business plan, and compete for investment. Students also need experienced mentors who will ask the tough questions, and help them find the path to success.
Students – with their enthusiasm and openness to new ideas – can be the engines that translate discoveries from university-based research into invention-based businesses. In the case of VentureWell, we have seen 500 student teams leverage $7.5 million in initial grants to raise more than $620 million and launch start-up companies. Over half of these businesses are still operating in countries around the world and reaching millions of people with ground-breaking innovations.
The Federal Government recognizes the critical role that students can play in driving invention-based entrepreneurship. Students are the lynchpin of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) I-Corps program, which is also a collaboration with VentureWell. I-Corps empowers teams of student entrepreneurs, researchers, and business mentors to identify findings from NSF-funded, academic research projects that could have commercial applications. I-Corps teams then take those ideas out of the lab and into the market. The students who drive these efforts need to be armed with both invention and entrepreneurship skills.
But the path to becoming a successful inventor needs to start long before young people enter university. We must begin early, focusing on how to integrate “invention education” into the K-12 years. Invention education builds on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – education but is distinct in its attention to how students identify and frame problems from which new ideas can emerge. Invention education also trains young students to take those ideas through the innovation process, transforming them into products that address real needs and have market value.
While educators are increasingly aware of the tremendous value of STEM, the catalytic impact of invention education is scarcely discussed. As a result, students’ innovative, problem-solving skills are routinely neglected, and the persistence that is needed to turn an idea into something real is rarely cultivated. Sadly, by the time students arrive at college, most never consider, nor seek out, the great promise of invention.
The Lemelson Foundation’s grantees show us every day that invention excites young people and builds their creative confidence. InvenTeams, an initiative of the Lemelson-MIT Program, challenges high school-age inventors around the US to turn their ideas about how to solve worthwhile problems into working prototypes. Great concepts – and even some patents – have come from these young inventors. The InvenTeam from Cesar Chavez High School in Arizona, for example, invented a fully adjustable physical therapy chair for medically fragile children. They were one of the first InvenTeams to be invited to the inaugural White House Science Fair in 2010, and the team received a patent for their physical therapy chair in 2014.
In developing countries, we are excited by the work of organizations like Global Minimum (GMin) that runs invention laboratories and design challenges in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa. These facilities offer a platform for young people to invent creative solutions to problems in their communities. We have already seen exciting results from GMin through entrepreneurs like Tom Osborn, a young Kenyan whose company GreenChar provides clean energy and combats deforestation by producing charcoal briquettes from compost material. GreenChar now employs 15 people, and Tom, at the age of 19, was recently named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30 social entrepreneurs.”
In our home state of Oregon, our grantee Oregon MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) provides dynamic after-school invention education opportunities to students from under-resourced communities. Oregon MESA delivers a 25-year track record of 100% high school graduation and 92% college continuation rates for participants in a state where the overall graduation rate is less than 69%.
The world needs more opportunities like these for young minds to engage in invention education both in and out of school. We know from experience that many of the young people who participate in InvenTeams or Oregon MESA programs will go on to become inventor entrepreneurs. But all of the young people who are touched by invention education will have improved self-confidence, an enhanced ability to maximize their personal potential, and a greater likelihood of finding a fulfilling career path. Whether job creators or job seekers, they will be better equipped to contribute to positive change.
The potential of youth to wrestle with and solve problems, create invention-based businesses, or simply experience and embrace the creative energy of invention is tremendous. To unlock it and their life-long potential to contribute, we need to invest in young inventors early and often, nurturing them along their chosen pathways. The end result will be a growing cadre of young inventor entrepreneurs who will drive social and economic progress that benefits all of us.