At his table at the Collegiate Inventor’s Conference, Keith Hearon from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a variety of plastic objects on display next to a bowl full of oranges. Each of the objects — an iPhone case, a swatch of paint, a computer part — had been made from the extract from the same oranges he had on display and they were all biodegradable. According to Hearon, the potential for citrus rinds as a replacement source for plastic was endless.
“Each of these industries is projected to be an $80 billion market by 2017,” said Hearnon, pointing down at the plastic objects on display. “Medical, biomaterials, engineering plastics, green paint coatings...”
The Collegiate Inventor’s Conference, held at the Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, was packed full of young inventors showing off their accomplishments to guests and judges, all vying for evening’s gold medal prize and the money for further research that came with it. The competition this year was hosted this year by Michelle Lee, the Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO, and Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera.
“It is a big thrill for us to meet these outstanding young people,” said Sasson, “and to learn from them about all of the new technologies they’re working on and to see their passion for what they do.”
The Collegiate Inventor’s Conference is one of three programs hosted by Invent Now, Inc. to promote modern scientific invention and innovation. The group also hosts the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame and Camp Invention, where elementary school students can learn about engineering and scientific discovery. According to Monica Jones, vice president of operations and marketing for Invent Now, the goal is to help students along every step of that process. The children at Camp Invention ideally pursue science to the Collegiate Inventor’s Conference and one day wind up in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
“Every single year we do this, starting back in 1990, the [inventions] get better and better,” said Jones. “They’re more innovative and they keep going. It’s really helping society, every single one.”
Hannah Paulin, the vice president of development for Invent Now, said she’s already seen a huge impact from their work.
“Started in 1990, this conference worked to recognize collegiate inventors to help them continue to develop these inventions,” said Paulin. “Holding it in the main hall of the PTO makes a huge impact.”
Paulin pointed to inventors like Steve Katsaros as one of their organization’s success stories. Katsaros was a winner at the Collegiate Inventor’s Conference in 1995 for a bike rack he developed. Currently Katsaros is the CEO and founder of Nokero, a company that markets the solar light bulb he invented.
The first place award for in the undergraduate category went to a team from University of Wisconsin-Madison for Spectrom, the first 3D printer to print in color. The award came with $12,500 and a $4,000 advisory prize the group plans to use to invest in their start-up company.
The first place graduate award, along with $15,000 and a $5,000 advisory prize, went to Katarzyna Sawicka from the Stony Brook University for her Immuno-Matrix. Her device was a patch, like a Band-Aid, that used nanofibers to administer a vaccine through the skin. This allows vaccines to be spread without contact through blood and, being stored in a small patch, allows them to be transported and stored more efficiently than with traditional vaccines.
“This is unbelievable,” said Sawicka. “I was an undergraduate, sitting where you guys were sitting, 10 years ago. I had come up with a material that I was the only person to see the potential for. Probably the hardest thing was sticking to it because it took me all of my graduate career to develop the material to be used as a vaccine everywhere in the world, without the need for an injection.”
The development process was difficult, but Sawicka says she’s glad she saw it through.
“It’s a difficult position, being in a lab all the time,” said Sawicka. “You have no life outside the lab, or your life consists of all of your colleagues and eating free food whenever it’s available. Classwork happens between those great moments.”
Next to Hearnon’s bowl of oranges, a team from Columbia University displayed a model of a human leg with a knee replacement.
“When there’s an infection present, the space in the knee is flooded with white blood cells,” said Elsa Swanson, one of the four members of the team that would take third place in the undergraduate category that night. “This is the best biomarker for infection after total knee replacement. Often times people who have infections don’t display symptoms until it’s already too late to save the implant with antibiotics so they have to remove the implant and treat them, it’s a really invasive procedure.”
Swanson pointed out a small metal band her team had put on the side of the replacement. Their invention measured the white blood cell count in that space and would emit an infrared light if it exceeded the threshold for the patient, indicating that an infection was present. This would allow doctors to give the patient antibiotics and heal the transplant without the invasive procedure.
Katherine Cagen from Harvard University displayed Ferrotouch, an invention that would allow touch screens to form braille or raised images. At her table was a bottle with a pool of iron nanoparticles that reacted to magnetic touch to form small bumps.
“Every screen; an ATM, a phone, TV, touch screen, they’re all blank boxes for someone who’s blind,” said Cagen. “Ferrotouch could attach to an ATM and let you feel what’s on the screen.”
In five or 10 years, the flexible optical display might allow for technology like virtual keyboards. Cagen developed her invention on less than a $500 budget.
“There was a little bit of a struggle,” Cagen admitted, “there’s some duct tape and twine in there.”