Science, math and technology education is inspiring a new
generation of inventors to save the world.
Western Michigan University students Joseph Barnett and Stephen John learned
about the lack of medical care for newborns during their respective travels to
Honduras and Nepal, so they designed a respirator for premature babies that can
be built with simple parts and operated without extensive training.
Joseph Barnett, left, and Stephen John, center, won best design by an undergraduate team for their respirator for newborn babies. At right is humorist Mo Rocca, the award presenter.
That design won the two aspiring medical students the award for best invention
by an undergraduate team during the 2015 Collegiate Inventors Competition on
Tuesday, netting them $10,000 in prize money.
“Even if you could afford an expensive ventilator from America, there is a steep
learning curve to learn those machines, or it might break and cost tens of
thousands of dollars,” Barnett says. “We wanted our designs to meet the
constraints of hospitals we would be working at in rural parts of developing nations like Honduras, Nepal or [countries in] Africa.”
Their invention could one day save “tens of thousands of lives” in the
developing world, says Spencer Silver, one of the judges for the competition who
is also the co-inventor of the Post-it Note.
Medical innovations dominated the competition, organized by education nonprofit
Invent Now and hosted at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria,
Va. Judges for the competition included
members of the patent office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame such as Silver and Steve
Sasson, who invented the original digital camera in 1975.
[EXPLORE: The 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index]
Sasson says many of the contest finalists are planning to form startups to market their inventions while still finishing college. Barnett and John plan to take on
the daunting task of starting medical school while marketing their respirator to
developing nations through their startup AIM Tech – but John says they are “optimistic” about the challenge.
“This is my third year as a judge in this competition and the kids get better
every year by targeting important problems with more advanced, useful ideas,” Sasson
says. “Most of the presentations in recent years have had a medical slant to them
since these inventors have identified so many problems in emerging countries that
can be improved with technology.”
Harvard University student David Kolesky won best
design from a graduate school entrant for making 3-D
printed human tissue.
Medical inventions featured during the expo included advanced disinfectant for
health care workers who operate in Ebola quarantine situations; a polymer gel
that can act as a contraceptive for cats, dogs and humans; and a blood test that can identify and isolate cancer cells.
Harvard University student David Kolesky won the $10,000 prize for best design by a graduate school entrant by using
a 3-D printer to build living human tissue – a scientific first that uses a material that liquefies when it
is cooled to create cardiovascular systems with blood vessels. Kolesky says he is working with groups to see if the tissue is realistic enough for use in clinical
trials like drug testing – and hopefully one day “use it to rebuild human skin.”
“My background is in engineering, so I caught the biotech bug when I was in undergrad,”
he says of his inspiration. “People have wanted to rebuild human tissue for
years and I was excited by the challenge.”
The potential for creating artificial body parts also inspired University of
Pennsylvania students to create a business card-sized model of a human eye with
the hopes that it can “fight animal cruelty and become an alternative to medical
testing on animals,” says co-inventor Nicholas Perkons. This “blinking human
eye on a chip” is being used to model dry eye disease but Perkons hopes
companies will see its potential to test other eye ailments.
The finalists each spoke of their schools supporting their innovations or
entrepreneurship even when it caused them to occasionally miss classes, but
University of Virginia student Nicholas Hogan says he was inspired at a particularly young age when he attended Invent Now’s Camp Invention in fifth grade.
“Instead of just being excited of building things at home it gave me a structure
of what inventing could look like in the real world,” Hogan recalls of Camp
Invention. “We learned how invention could be about helping others.”
Hogan and his teammates tackled the problem of overpopulation with their
invention Contraline, a contraceptive that can work on both dogs and human
males with a gel polymer injection that blocks the flow of sperm without
surgery or hormonal alteration.
The prize-winning teams are pictured
during the award ceremony of the 2015 Collegiate Inventors
“This is better than a vasectomy; this is better than anything men have access
to right now,” he says. “Urologists told us ‘this sounds awesome; we’re interested.’”
The expo at the federal patent offices also honored inventors of previous
generations by inducting new members into the National
Inventors Hall of Fame – including Victor Lawrence, who
received the award for his signal processing technology that enabled
Lawrence, who is African-American, says he hopes his
induction into the pantheon of great inventors will “inspire future generations – especially minorities – to look at STEM education.”