By Carol Dahl, Executive Director
For more than 20 years The Lemelson Foundation has been committed to the power of invention to improve lives. While inventions come in many forms, the Foundation’s work is focused on those that help solve the world’s most complex and systemic problems with true and lasting impact.
We call this impact inventing and it has three central tenets: inventions need to have positive social impact, be environmentally responsible, and be financially self-sustaining. While all three aspects of impact inventing are interrelated and important, positive social impact is essential. Without it, we will never be able to address the current challenges we face as a global population.
The late Burt Swersey – the transformative, plainspoken professor who created the landmark course “Inventor’s Studio” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – described the importance of social impact inventing best when he challenged students, inventors and entrepreneurs alike by saying: “Don’t do nonsense! Make change happen that will have significant benefits for a billion people.” Professor Swersey knew what he was talking about. And his plea was as prophetic as it was provocative.
There are an infinite number of opportunities in the world, and an infinite number of inventions yet to be realized. Many are likely to yield big financial returns and make our lives more convenient and efficient. But what will they ultimately contribute to the world? How will they transform our planet for the better and improve the well-being of those with the greatest needs?
The simple truth is that we as a society should focus more attention on urgent, meaningful problems worth solving rather than channeling the bulk of our creativity and talent toward the near term reward of apps and gizmos that serve only to make our lives more entertaining or easier.
For The Lemelson Foundation that means supporting the development of invention-based businesses with the greatest potential for leverage and impact. And it means focusing on problems like climate change, water scarcity, food security, access to energy, sanitation, inequity of health access, and poverty; as well as those problems in local communities that keep their residents from achieving their full potential. In a developed country setting these challenges are hard enough; in the developing world context, they become exponentially more intractable.
Fortunately, many of the companies and people supported by the Foundation and its grantees are leading the charge to solve these problems:
- Promethean Power Systems is designing and manufacturing refrigeration systems for cold-storage applications in areas of developing countries where access to electricity is unreliable. Products like Promethean’s rapid milk chiller enable food suppliers to reliably store and preserve perishable food without the need for expensive and dirty diesel-powered generators, which in turn helps them bring products to market more quickly and safely while yielding better incomes for small and struggling dairy farmers.
- Dr. Angela Belcher, winner of the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Prize, is conducting groundbreaking research in which she genetically engineers bacterial viruses benign to humans to create materials for practical human use. Dr. Belcher’s work has resulted in “self-assembled” hybrid materials useable as components in electronic devices such as batteries, display screens, and solar cells, as well as products that can be applied to everything from early detection of ovarian cancer to purifying water. Her research has led to the launch of two companies, Cambrios Technologies and Siluria Technologies.
- SELCO is focusing on context-driven energy solutions that make it possible to provide reliable, low-cost energy to tens of thousands of underserved households, villages and slums across India. Their work demonstrates the strong connections between sustainable energy, livelihoods, enterprise creation, asset building, quality of life, reduction in poverty, and environmental sustainability.
These are three radically different invention-based efforts solving three totally different problems. Yet each example illustrates what it looks like to build a viable business with positive social impact focused on big problems worth solving.
Another concept that’s central to the Foundation’s approach is systems thinking – a concept which recognizes the profound interdependencies that define and drive our world. System thinkers begin with an assumption that every choice humans make, every obstacle we encounter, is simultaneously shaping and shaped by millions of other interrelated factors. In this context, the problems worth solving through invention take on added meaning and importance. When we view problems as parts of an overall system, rather than as isolated or discrete challenges, we discover how to solve them in more holistic, comprehensive ways.
This type of systems thinking is essential when considering the potential impact on the planet of what we create, and why environmental responsibility is core to impact inventing. Everything we create, every invention we manufacture, affects the planet in a variety of ways – from the materials required to produce it, to the labor involved, to the energy required, to the waste it generates when it is no longer of use. As a society we have historically done a poor job of considering the breadth and depth of these impacts. Too often we think only of an invention’s benefits, but not enough of its related systemic costs.
Fortunately there are more and more invention-based companies applying systems thinking to their process, many with encouragement and support from The Lemelson Foundation and our partners:
- HELIX Micro-Rebar is a replacement for conventional rebar in providing structural steel reinforcement in concrete. In addition to improving crack resistance, durability and shear strength in construction, the unique design of their micro-rebar can reduce steel consumption by up to 75% and cement usage by 25%. With cement production accounting for 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, there are tangible environmental benefits to using HELIX’s product.
- Sanergy is helping provide critical sanitation solutions for slums and informal settlements across Africa. Their locally built, pre-fabricated Fresh Life Toilets are hygienic, accessible and affordable for all. Sanergy collects the waste from the toilets daily, then converts it into useful by-products such as organic fertilizer and renewable energy. While the volume of energy produced may not solve the broader global energy crisis, Sanergy’s inventive systems-based approach yields valuable and clean by-products that ensure a net positive environmental impact and strengthen the business itself. It is not creating a new problem (waste disposal) by trying to solve another (sanitation).
- Ecovative Design is producing packaging materials out of living organisms with a new class of home-compostable biomaterials made largely from mushrooms. Ecovative is using mycelium, the vegetative growth stage of the fungi – essentially a living polymer – to make environmentally responsible alternatives to traditional foam packaging, insulation, and other plastic-based materials. The technology represents a huge breakthrough with the potential to reduce petroleum use while also reducing the amount of petroleum-based waste that will permanently populate our landfills.
These organizations and individuals are just some of the envelope-pushing inventors who are helping build a brighter future for us and our planet. And their work demonstrates what’s possible when you think not only about a problem worth solving, but about the systemic ripples of your chosen invention.
At Lemelson we recognize that the inventor’s pathway is full of challenges and always evolving. No single endeavor or product idea is perfect, and few inventions embody all the tenets of impact inventing in equal measure. Turning a good invention into a product involvesbuilding prototypes, learning from their failure, and persisting through continual iteration and process improvement. Sometimes it even ends in outright failure, but inventors learn from failure too.
At The Lemelson Foundation we are committed to supporting inventions that matter, rather than the “nonsense” Burt Swersey so wisely cautioned against. We believe that invention can address the problems that are worth solving and create a more promising future for our global population and the planet. And that is a challenge worth accepting.