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Jerome H. Lemelson believed invention and innovation were keys to American economic success and dynamism, and that many American businesses were losing sight of this fact. Lemelson conceived of the idea of a foundation that would support and celebrate independent inventors when he himself was a struggling young inventor. He envisioned a foundation that would create a pipeline for young inventors and support them from a young age onward with resources, connections to role models, and grants that would give emerging inventors the ability to develop, refine, and take their inventions to market.
In 1993, Jerome, his wife Dorothy, and his sons and their families established the Lemelson Foundation with money from his patents. He was interested in expanding opportunities for people of all backgrounds and within two years, the Lemelsons had pledged more than $20 million to educational institutions and organizations.
A memorial video produced after Lemelson's death includes this statement he made in 1996: "I have had a substantial amount of success in the last five years licensing my patents, and I feel I have an obligation to plow back a portion of the income I made to improve the lot of the inventor in America, and to improve the future economy of this country." Jerome Lemelson created the Lemelson Foundation to promote these ideas and values.
After Lemelson’s death in 1997, the foundation decided that its framework and theories of action to support invention in the U.S. could also be applied to developing countries. In 2003, the foundation hired its first executive director and expanded its programs in order to increase opportunities for young inventors around the world and therefore improve economic prospects for poor countries. According to a New York Times article, Dorothy Lemelson saw that ″this new direction as an expansion of her husband's original vision.″ She explained, ″All his life, Jerry wanted to celebrate American invention. He felt it was what made this country strong. Now it's time to turn to the rest of the world and see what we can do for them.″
Based in Portland, Oregon, the foundation has donated or committed over $185 million to support education, invention, and innovation. In addition to nurturing inventors and supporting science and technology education in the U.S., the foundation has broadened its mission to include fostering technological innovation that drives economic and social improvements in developing countries.
The foundation developed a framework called "Impact Inventing" to define its funding strategy. Impact inventing is based on three key concepts:
- An invention should have positive social impact. The Foundation supports inventions that solve important societal problems and address pressing community needs.
- The invention needs to be environmentally responsible. The Foundation encourages inventors to make carefully considered decisions that minimize the environmental footprint of both invention processes and final products.
- The business model around the invention needs to be financially self-sustaining. The Foundation wants inventors to develop businesses that are scalable, market-tested, and economically viable in order to create jobs and grow economies.
The Lemelson Foundation currently works in both the U.S. and in developing countries. Strategies involve creating an ecosystem where inventors and their innovations are supported from start to finish: from conception to full, self-sustaining enterprise. The Foundation is focused on 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. The Foundation has a special focus on its home state of Oregon through the Oregon MESA program and other investments.
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Housed within the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the Lemelson Center aims to document, interpret, and disseminate information about invention and innovation. The Center encourages inventive creativity in young people, and fosters an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation in the history of the United States. The Center frequently provides a multi-year focus on some aspect of how invention has influenced American society, such as its 2015 "Places of Invention" theme. Programs include a yearly symposium, presentations and guest speakers within and outside the National Museum of American History, and often the publication of a book detailing aspects of the topical focus. The Center also provides free curricular material to classrooms throughout the United States; organizes traveling museum exhibitions (such as "Invention at Play"); provides research opportunities and fellowships for scholars; and finds, obtains, and processes archival collections related to invention on behalf of the museum's Archives Center. These collections consist of the papers and materials documenting the work of past and current American inventors.
The Lemelson-MIT Program. The Lemelson-MIT Program promotes and celebrates the work of individual inventors through annual awards and competitions. Each year, the program awards the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize and a series of graduate and undergraduate Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prizes in the amounts of $10,000 and $15,000. It also sponsors Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, which provide direct support to high school teams of young inventors. Through its outreach activities, the program provides MIT faculty and students with opportunities to work on inventions for the developing world. The program publishes handbooks that guide inventors in the development and marketing of their work.
Oregon MESA. The MESA Schools Program in Oregon is based at Portland State University and supported the Lemelson Foundation. MESA teaches STEM, invention, and contemporary skills to historically underrepresented students, including girls, African American, Native American, and Latino students, students from low-income families, and first-generation college-bound students. The program works within schools in grades 6–12, engaging students in math, engineering, science and technology projects. The program is free, offered to students in their schools, and makes an effort to engage parents. MESA also runs the MC2 program in partnership with AmeriCorps, which trains College Access Coaches to teach high school students about career planning, college preparation, and professional development.
VentureWell. Formerly known as The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), VentureWell is a higher education network that fosters invention and entrepreneurship to catalyze innovative, commercially viable businesses. With an emphasis on improving "life for people and the planet," VentureWell has built a community of faculty and student inventors. As of 2015, VentureWell has supported the establishment of almost 600 new courses and programs in invention and entrepreneurship across 160 campuses nationwide. They have given over $7.5 million in grants to over 500 student teams in order to help them launch their businesses. Those teams have gone on to raise more than $620 million and more than half of the ventures continue to operate as of 2015. Notable ventures launched through the program are Sanergy (hygienic sanitation systems in Africa) and Ecovative Design (environmentally friendly packaging). Both companies are designed with social and economic sustainability in mind.
Villgro. Villgro, an Indian-based organization, supports social entrepreneurship and incubation for social good innovations in rural India. The organization provides seed funding, mentoring, coaching, and more. As of 2015, Villgro had helped 109 innovators, created 4,000 jobs, and impacted 15 million people. They incubated and mentored Biosense, a medical engineering and design form working to change diagnostics; Promethean Power Systems, which is redesigning refrigeration systems for off-grid areas and other regions with electrical challenges; and OneBreath, affordable ventilators for impoverished areas to address the high rate of respiratory illness in India.
SELCO Incubation Lab. SELCO is a social enterprise that provides sustainable energy solutions and services to underserved populations. SELCO Incubation Lab was established in 2009 to provide "new clean and sustainable technologies for the rural poor other than lighting." The lab is located at the SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire, Karnataka, India, because its rural setting improves the lab’s ability to serve its customers. The lab not only develops new technology, it also serves as an incubation space for entrepreneurs—helping inventors with their independently owned enterprises. Part of SELCO’s work involves building up a supply and demand chain for renewable energy—from manufacturing to design to fulfillment and sales.
Gearbox. Gearbox is the first open makerspace for design and prototyping in Kenya. Members have access to the space to work together on projects that combine hardware and software, share ideas and skills, and nurture a community of inventors working on computer technology, industrial art, robotics, and electronics. Gearbox provides design tools and rapid prototyping equipment (3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, industrial sewing machines, vinyl cutters, engineering tools, and equipment for electronics creation and testing). An in-house store and in-house product designers provide additional resources to the public. The Lemelson Foundation was one of Gearbox’s first funders. According to Lemelson Foundation Executive Director Carol Dahl, Gearbox "will provide a much-needed space for inventors to talk, build, test, and ultimately take their ideas to market."
NESsT Peru. NESsT works in Argentina, Brazil, Hungary, Peru, Poland, and Romania to support sustainable social enterprises that solve social problems. The organization supports social enterprises in scaling their businesses, and works on a portfolio-based model. The Lemelson Foundation supports the Peruvian program, which launched in 2007 and has since provided over USD$1.5 million in financing and technical assistance to the benefit of over 40,500 low-income individuals. Enterprises include agricultural businesses designed to help small farmers, a coding and personal development program for young women to bring them into the tech sector, and a solar power company that offers high-quality portable solar lamps and kits at accessible prices, among others. As a long-term incubator (they support business for 5 to 7 years) with an emphasis on evaluation, reporting, business planning and strategy, NESsT supports these start-ups until they’re established and stable.
Design for the Other 90%. This 2007 exhibition, produced by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, focused on the growing movement among designers to develop cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, transportation and revenue-generating activities for the billions of people living in poverty around the globe. Most designers invent for the world’s richest 10 percent. This exhibition showed what happens when you design for the other 90 percent. It was followed in 2011 by Design for the Other 90%: CITIES, which featured 60 projects addressing the rising number of issues emerging as more and more people migrate to live in close proximity, whether in established urban areas or in informal settlements.
The Lemelson RAMPs (Recognition and Mentoring Programs). RAMPs identified inventors working on the needs of communities at the "base of the pyramid" and provided mentoring and funding as they formulated enterprises and products. The term RAMPS is no longer in use, but the Lemelson Foundation supports the work that came out of these enterprises through partner organizations in India, Indonesia, and Peru (including Villgro). The RAMPs program began as a partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and the Rural Innovation Network in India, and then expanded to sites in Indonesia and Peru. RAMPs provided inventors with resources to develop and bring to market inventions that address basic human needs, improved the quality of life among the world's poor, and support innovations in sustainable development. Innovators supported through RAMPs include:
- Dr. Sathya Jaganathan (India): Her innovation—a low-cost baby warmer— dramatically reduced the rates of newborn and pre-term mortality at the rural hospital where she works. Jaganathan plans to manufacture the warmers and get them to more hospitals.
- Ari Purbayanto (Indonesia): Prof. Purbayanto has developed Suritech, a machine that separates the bones and meat of small by-catch fish, making it profitable for fishermen to sell the by-catch, rather than throw dead or dying fish back into the sea, incubated by inotek.
Technology Dissemination projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The foundation made exploratory grants in developing countries "to support invention education, develop specific technologies, and to disseminate new technology products in communities. Such projects included support for solar lighting, irrigation technologies, and neonatal devices." Funded organizations included:
- Kickstart. Based in Kenya, Kickstart develops farming products to help lift families out of poverty. As of October 1, 2015, Kickstart has sold 267,799 pumps for farming; created over 200,000+ enterprises, helped move over 1 million people out of poverty, and generated $170 million in new profits and wages annually.
- SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) and SELCO (Solar Electric Light Company). SELCO adapts and improves energy technologies to meet the needs of poor people, while SEWA helps women entrepreneurs launch businesses to sell the products.
- IDEAAS (Instituto para o Desenvolvimento de Energias Alternativas e da Auto Sustentabilidade). IDEAAS is a Brazilian organization that increases energy access in rural Brazil, promotes the efficient use of energy, and advances social entrepreneurship through renewable energy businesses.
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