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Thursday Apr 17, 2014

Inspiring the Next Generation of Inventors

Blog by Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO Michelle K. Lee

What do physicist Charles Hull, chemist Richard DiMarchi, and the late silver screen star Hedy Lamarr have in common? For one, they each patented inventions that revolutionized their industries and changed people’s lives. Second, they will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) on May 21st here at USPTO headquarters. But they also, at some point in their lives, were inspired to pursue new horizons in science.

Hull is considered the father of additive manufacturing, more popularly known as 3D printing. He came up with the idea while developing lamps for ultraviolet-curable resins, and now his technology is being used to create everything from aircraft components to artificial limbs. DiMarchi has improved more than a million lives with his development of the first rDNA-derived peptide approved as medicine; his Humalog® insulin is an indispensable part of the lives of many diabetes sufferers. And Lamarr? The accomplished actress once partnered with composer George Antheil to patent a “secret communication system” that reduced the danger of detection or jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes.

My path to becoming an engineer in the field of artificial intelligence did not involve the performing arts. I am a second-generation American who grew up in Silicon Valley—our nation’s main hub for innovation. My father was an engineer, as were all of the other dads on our street, and I never imagined any other career path. But we need to help encourage our next generation of inventors to pursue all kinds of different fields. That’s why I’m glad the USPTO manages the NIHF program, in partnership with the non-profit Invent Now. The partnership involves inspiring programs for inventive college students and curious grade schoolers, such as Invent Now’s Camp Invention.

At Camp Invention, students get to play inventor for a week at a national summer program focused on creativity, innovation, and real-world problem solving. This week-long summer day camp for 1st through 6th graders includes robust STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum while also providing insights on the role of patents and trademarks in innovation. Established in 1990, the program is currently held at more than 1,200 sites in 50 states. Students learn through teamwork and subject immersion, while the certified teachers guiding the camps receive materials they can utilize in their regular school curriculum during the normal academic year. Perhaps most importantly, Invent Now puts great focus into finding teachers and schools located in economically disadvantaged communities to host Camp Invention, ensuring that children of all backgrounds can benefit.

But our partnership with Invent Now doesn’t only focus on children and accomplished inventors. We also work with Invent Now on the very popular Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC), another program in operation since 1990. NIHF inductees and USPTO subject-matter experts serve as judges of individual and team submissions from undergraduate and graduate students across the country. These inventors develop groundbreaking innovations to address vexing problems, and finalists and winners are honored here at the USPTO in a special ceremony. Last year’s entries included a next-generation cancer chemotherapy patch, a mechanical leech for post-surgical treatment of tissue reattachment patients, and an upper-body exoskeleton for physical therapy and occupational lifting. Applications are now being accepted for the 2014 competition.

In short, our partnership with Invent Now supports a path of innovation, from grade school to college to the heights of a professional career. That story will be told soon in our National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum housed at our Alexandria headquarters. We are working with Invent Now to overhaul our existing museum and turn it into a true shrine to innovation and the great patent owners who have been inducted into the NIHF. A portion of that museum will be opened at our May 21st induction ceremony, where 2014 attendees will be able to see their names, innovations, and related patent numbers on permanent display. Visitors will be able to track paths of innovation, following the first childhood spark of an idea to the moment when it changed the world.

When we induct the 2014 NIHF class next month, I’m sure I won’t be alone in wondering how many future inductees will be veterans of Camp Invention or the Collegiate Inventors Competition. It’s really only a matter of time.


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