If you’ve read any Spark!Lab related stories on this blog, you’ve probably noticed that we frequently say that “everyone is inventive.” This is one of the key messages in Spark!Lab and something we work hard to make sure all of our visitors understand—and, more importantly, believe. One of the many ways we communicate this idea is by showcasing diverse inventors.
Near the entrance to the Draper Spark!Lab, historic and contemporary inventors are used to introduce and illustrate the invention process. At activity stations, featured inventors provide real-world context for the hands-on activities. On the object wall, inventors (and their inventions) illuminate broad activity themes, and on the prizewinners’ wall, inventors are recognized for awards they have won for their work. In showcasing inventors in different places and in different ways, our visitors learn that inventors can be men or women, young or old, from any racial or ethnic background, and have wide-ranging interests, skills, and abilities.
Visitors explore the different profiles and talk with one another about what they learn. It’s most common to see grown-ups calling their children over to talk about an inventor, but kids are also attracted to the profiles—especially if they feature young inventors. Not surprisingly, our young visitors are most attracted to kids or those adults who are young enough to still be relatable to the 6-12 year olds who frequent Spark!Lab. When we write short biographies of these inventors, though, we capture them at a moment in time, telling their stories as we know them then. But what happens next? Here are updates on a few of the young inventors we’ve featured in Spark!Lab over the last few years.
With fellow Carnegie Mellon University student Matthew Stanton, Hahna Alexander invented a shoe insole that could store electricity. Rather than waste the energy that’s generated when we walk, the insole stores the energy as electricity, providing a source to charge a cell phone or other device. In 2012 the duo co-founded SolePower to take their idea to market, and in 2014 won the Popular Science Invention Award. While Stanton has moved on to other ventures, Alexander continues to serve as CEO of the company and has taken their initial idea of the power-generating boot to the next level.
In a recent feature on NPR, Alexander talked about learning an important lesson after developing the first idea: No one actually wanted the product. It wasn’t enough that the technology worked; it had to be packaged and used in a way that was beneficial to potential customers. Instead of giving up, Alexander continued to work on the idea and today, SolePower is focused on creating “smart boots” that can generate power to charge devices while also providing Wi-Fi and GPS data.
SolePower is currently working with the US Army to develop kinetic chargers that can be placed in soldiers’ boots. These have the potential to replace heavy power packs and lighten the loads of military personnel. The company is also looking at applications outside the military. As Alexander explains, the boots can “power lights and a suite of sensors such as GPS for location and accelerometers for motion and movement. . . . [T]he system gathers and provides information about worker safety, productivity, and efficiency. The insights and data will be invaluable to companies who care about the safety of their workforce.”
In 2012, Miles Barr received the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for “his solar inventions and ability to inspire.” Barr developed a new way to fabricate solar cells so that they can be created on nearly any surface, including newspaper and plastic wrap. His idea was to integrate solar technology into products we use everyday, rather than having them as an add-on (think solar panels installed on a roof).
A year before he received the prestigious Lemelson-MIT award, Barr co-founded a company called Ubiquitous Energy where he currently serves as CEO. The company is focused on its ClearView Power™ technology, a transparent solar film that can generate power. It can be integrated into electronic devices like phones and wearables to power these devices, or placed over windows to power an entire house or building. Like Hahna Alexander, Barr and his colleagues had to learn how to take the technology and create something that the market needed and wanted: “Our vision back at MIT was that we wanted to enable solar tech in new products and new surfaces, getting out of rooftop solar. We didn’t know at first that making it invisible was key to that vision. It took a fair amount of time to iterate between the tech side and the market side before we realized we had to make it transparent.”
Barr has also talked about the importance of being able to explain his idea to others—in Spark!Lab we call this the “sell it” part of the invention process. He says, “We’re inventing a brand-new product. It doesn’t exist today. So it’s not always simple for people to see how they might implement it. . . . The key is finding a simple story that’s able to connect the dots on what value our technology can bring.”
When she was in middle school, Deepika Kurup was on a trip to India when she saw children drinking dirty water from a stagnant pool. It was then that she decided she needed “to find a solution to the global water crisis.” Kurup invented an inexpensive solar-powered water purification device. Unlike many other systems, Kurup’s does not require electricity or chemicals to purify the water.
Kurup was recognized as “America’s Top Young Scientist” in 2012, and in 2013 was invited to speak at the White House Science Fair. Last year, she presented her work at TEDWomen 2016, Today, she is a junior at Harvard University and is the co-founder of Aquidas, a social enterprise focused on developing safe, sustainable, and cost-effective water purification systems for developing nations.
At age 12, Alexis Lewis won first place for her age group in the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge for her “Rescue Travois,” a vehicle designed to help people who had to relocate because of wars and natural disasters. She adapted a Native American sled, called a travois, by adding wheels to it so one person can pull it, hands-free. As part of the prize, Lewis received the services of a patent attorney and an all-expenses-paid patent application. In 2015, she received US Patent 8,979,095 for her “Wheeled Travois.”
The next year, Lewis again entered the Invent It Challenge and again won her age group, this time for her “Emergency Mask Pod,” a way to deliver emergency smoke masks to people trapped in burning buildings. After winning her second Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, I recommended Lewis enter the Disney Big Hero 6-XPrize Challenge which was designed to harness kids’ creativity and inspire them to “come up with innovative ideas to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges using science, technology, engineering, art and/or mathematics.” I was delighted (though not surprised) when she was named as one of six winners out of hundreds of entrants.
Since winning her first Invent It Challenge, Lewis has spoken widely about inventing and the role that kids can play in inventing solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. She has shared her passion for invention at SXSWedu, TEDxUNC, the Smithsonian, and even the White House. Lewis is currently a freshman at Claremont McKenna College in California, where she hopes to study pre-med and neuroscience. Next month, she will be featured by CA Technologies as one of their "new leaders in STEM."
As we develop new profiles for Spark!Lab, we will continue to look for opportunities to highlight the work of young people to both expand our visitors’ ideas about who can invent and to inspire them to be inventive themselves. I dream of the day we’ll be able to highlight an inventor whose story began in Spark!Lab and who will credit his or her invention career to learning from us that everyone is inventive.