by Carol Dahl, Executive Director
Over the course of 2015, we are celebrating The Lemelson Foundation’s 20 years of work to improve lives through invention. Throughout the year, we will share how 20 Big Ideas have improved lives and created self-sustaining businesses in the U.S. and developing countries, while being environmentally responsible. They have inspired us, and we hope that they will inspire inventors for generations to come.
2015 is an important year for The Lemelson Foundation. It has been 20 years since our founders, the prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy, mapped out their vision for a world where inventors and their inventions improve lives.
As we pause to reflect on two decades of philanthropic work, we have much to celebrate and even more to learn. Over the next year we intend to mark our 20th anniversary with a mix of big ideas, shared learnings, and inspiring stories about the incredible work of our grantees. We also want to show how Jerome and Dorothy’s original vision together with the ongoing vision of the Lemelson family continues to shape the future of invention and inspire the work of the Foundation and our partners.
Since our founding, The Lemelson Foundation has focused intently on the power of invention to improve lives. We believe invention can solve many of the biggest social and economic challenges of our time. It’s why we work to strengthen the ecosystem in which inventions grow and flourish, across the United States and around the world.
We do this by investing in invention at three distinct, but related, levels: we support organizations that provide inspiration for young or emerging inventors to solve problems through invention; we invest in the education of inventors, preparing them with the knowledge and tools they need to do their best work; and we help launch invention-based businesses, supporting them through the critical early incubation phase.
We take this approach because we believe these three stages of the “invention pathway” offer the best route for transforming nascent but important ideas into viable, tangible, life-improving products, and ultimately into successful businesses that stimulate the economy.
Invention can take many forms, of course. The technologies and tools, devices and data that make our lives so efficient and convenient represent a mind-boggling mix of important invention breakthroughs and opportunities. Yet at the same time, the global community is confronting a daunting and unprecedented set of challenges related to unparalleled energy consumption, climate change, tenuous food security, over-population, and expanding threats to global human health.
Mindful of the opportunities and the challenges before us, The Lemelson Foundation’s belief in the power of invention is continually evolving. We know there are big problems that need to be solved, and these grand challenges will require a range of approaches, solutions, products, and innovations. That being said, we believe the most important products invented in the next 20 years will be those that address critical social and environmental issues, and reach and serve communities with the greatest needs.
Real products and lasting solutions are the vehicles that will deliver meaningful change, solve urgent problems, and create sustainable economic value for all.
This is why the Lemelson Foundation is focused on supporting the development of inventions that rethink impact—projects like sanitation systems for the developing world, cost-effective medical devices, and more efficient, affordable sources of renewable energy.
We believe the products needed to solve the world’s biggest problems require careful, measured solutions. So rather than investing in invention for invention’s sake, The Lemelson Foundation is focused on what we call Impact Inventing.
First, the invention should have positive social impact. The Lemelson Foundation is committed to supporting inventions that solve important societal problems and address pressing community needs in ways that are additive and useful—problems worth solving.
Next, the invention needs to be environmentally responsible. The Lemelson Foundation seeks to help establish a generation of environmentally responsible inventors whose processes align with the principles of ecological sustainability. These principles encourage inventors to consider all reasonable options for materials and processes, and make informed choices. Inventors should make carefully considered decisions to minimize the environmental footprint both during the invention process as well as of the final products that will reach the market.
Finally, to have impact, the business model around the invention needs to be financially self-sustaining. Our founder, Jerry Lemelson, believed that ideas can have significant positive impact if they can be transformed into real products that reach real people. So if an invention cannot be taken to scale and brought to market in a way that is financially viable, and ultimately self-sustaining, there is little chance that it will be transformative. Businesses that make real products have real impact. They stimulate job growth, they spur investment, and that in turn helps drive the economic engines needed to alleviate poverty, transform lives, and keep nations strong.
Given the daunting challenges we are confronting worldwide, The Lemelson Foundation supports an invention ecosystem focused on problems that are worth solving—and not simply problems that can be solved. We recognize the need for a strong supportive invention ecosystem to make this happen. We seek to inspire inventors to know they can make a difference.
Over the coming year, as we document and celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we look forward to showing you what Impact Inventing looks like in practice. In a series we are calling “20 Big Ideas” we will profile the transformative inspiration, education, and incubation work of our grantees and partners worldwide.
Once each quarter I will also use this space to share my own thoughts—highlighting the Foundation’s programmatic priorities, raising questions for others interested in the power of invention to change lives, and sharing ideas we at Lemelson find particularly inspiring. Thank you for being a partner on our journey.