Lemelson Foundation

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The Lemelson Foundation is a private 501(c)(3) philanthropy founded in 1993 by Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy.


Lemelson believed invention and innovation were key to American economic success and dynamism, yet he was also deeply concerned that American businesses and society were ignoring the origins of this innovation, which he believed were the minds and achievements of American inventors.[1] 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 promote the idea that young people should have scientists and inventors as their role models, and provide support for these budding inventors through grants that would give college inventors without seed capital the ability to develop, refine, and take their inventions to market.

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".[2] Jerome Lemelson created the Lemelson Foundation to promote these ideas and values.


Based in Portland, Oregon, the foundation has donated or committed over $140 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.[3]

Over 63,000 student and grassroots inventors have received support from the Lemelson Foundation, resulting in 102 patents obtained or pending, 81 new business enterprises in the U.S. started by student innovators, and 197 products developed.[when?]

The foundation directly supports museum and education programs, most prominently at MIT and the Smithsonian Institution. Many of their programs focus on inspiring young people to pursue education and careers in science, technology, and invention. In the mid-90s the foundation seeded the creation of a nationwide collegiate organization that fosters invention and entrepreneurship in higher education. The Lemelson Foundation also supports several programs, including the African-American Male Achievers Network (A-MAN) based in Los Angeles, and Oregon MESA (Math, Engineering, Science, Achievement) that provide students in grades 6-12 with opportunities to develop creativity and skills in science, technology and engineering.

The foundation developed a framework called "Idea to Impact" to define a new funding strategy. Through grants, loans, and equity investments, the foundation supports technology projects driven by the needs and priorities of local people in the developing world. This social enterprise approach provides assistance to inventors and entrepreneurs who invent new technologies or adapt existing technologies to serve the poorest of the poor.[4] Unlike traditional philanthropic giving to developing countries, investment in these technologies provides income-generating opportunities that can enable individuals to increase their net income by up to ten times. In Kenya, $40 million (.5% of the nation's total GDP), was generated in 2005 through technology developed and distributed by KickStart, an organization funded in part by the Lemelson Foundation.[5] Eric Lemelson, Jerome Lemelson's eldest son and currently a director of the Foundation, notes that "Raising living standards to levels where people can think about things beyond keeping themselves and their children alive from day to day is a critical part of how to solve the sustainable development puzzle."[6]

Like the Skoll Foundation, the Schwab Foundation, and Ashoka, the Lemelson Foundation promotes social entrepreneurship. "Rather than presenting communities with cheap versions of first world products, social entrepreneurs improve lives and create opportunities to generate income by co-developing robust and tailored innovations in collaboration with local people. Effectively, they are building a middle class from the bottom up.[7]" The Lemelson Foundation has partnered with Ashoka to support global fellows, and committed $2 million as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative "to support renewable and efficient energy technologies."[8]

Initiatives supported in the United States[edit]

Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation within the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which produces educational programs, popular and academic publications, exhibitions, podcasts and symposia about invention. The mission of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center is to document, interpret, and disseminate information about invention and innovation; encourage inventive creativity in young people and; foster an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation in the history of the United States.[9] The Center frequently provides a multi-year focus on some aspect of how invention has influenced American society, such as its 2002 "Invention and the Environment" 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;[10] 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. This program promotes and celebrates the work of individual inventors through annual awards and competitions. Each year, it awards the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the $100,000 Award for Sustainability, and the $30,000 Student Prize. In 2007, the program introduced two additional $30,000 student prizes to be awarded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It also sponsors InvenTeams, which provide direct support to high school teams of young inventors. Through its outreach activities, the Lemelson-MIT Program provides MIT faculty and students with opportunities to work on inventions for the developing world.[11] The program publishes handbooks that guide inventors in the development and marketing of their work.[12]

The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). The NCIIA, one of the first programs initiated by Jerome Lemelson, fosters invention and entrepreneurship in higher education to catalyze innovative, commercially viable businesses. Over 200 universities and colleges are members of the NCIIA. Students at these schools can apply for grants to form multi-disciplinary "E-Teams" ("E" for "excellence" and "entrepreneurship"), that develop product ideas, build prototypes and research marketing strategies. The program also provides faculty with grants to develop new ways to teach invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. An example of an E-Team is “GROW,” a hybrid solar/wind energy-producing device that resembles vines of ivy; their innovation was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of its “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition.[13] Another example is Keen Mobility, which grew out of an E-Team project that developed a new type of crutch that utilizes different types of shock absorbers to reduce long term muscular-skeletal injuries in the disabled.[14] Over 81 businesses have been launched as a result of students taking inventions that they developed with NCIIA grants to commercialization.[citation needed]

Developing country programs and projects[edit]

Design for the Other 90% was an exhibition, produced by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, focuses 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 nearly 1.8 billion people living in poverty around the globe. "The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%."[15]

Technology Dissemination projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The foundation supports projects that develop life-improving products and deliver them into the hands of those living on less than $2–4 a day. Funded organizations include:

  • KickStart, a Kenya-based organization that develops agricultural technologies for very poor entrepreneurs. It has helped over 61,000 families start or transform their farming enterprises in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. Collectively, these enterprises generate over $66 million a year in new profits and wages.[16]
  • 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.[17]
  • IDEAAS (Instituto para o Desenvolvimento de Energias Alternativas e da Auto Sustentabilidade), a Brazilian organization that leases—rather than sells—its customized solar energy kits to poor rural people. IDEAAS links monthly charges to a household’s existing budget for lighting. Pricing includes installation, maintenance, and replacement of the battery after three years.[18]

The Lemelson RAMPs (Recognition and Mentoring Programs). RAMPs began as a partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and the Rural Innovation Network in India, then expanded to sites in Indonesia and Peru. The RAMPs provide inventors with resources to develop and bring to market inventions that address basic human needs, improve the quality of life among the world's poor, and support innovations in sustainable development.[19] 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 [20]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[21]
  • MSc. Luis Lira Coronado (Peru): Lira Coronado has devised a ventilation system that keeps perishable products fresh for longer periods of time.[22]


  1. ^ Myrna Oliver, Jerome Lemelson; Inventor Held 500 Patents, Los Angeles Times Obituary, October 3, 1997.
  2. ^ YouTube - Jerome Lemelson - The Lemelson Foundation
  3. ^ The Lemelson Foundation: Program Impacts
  4. ^ Julia Novy-Hildesley, "From Idea to Impact: Funding Invention for Sustainability" Innovations MIT Press, Winter 2006.
  5. ^ TechNation 1 August 2006, http://www.kickstart.org/home/
  6. ^ Patents; The Lemelson Foundation, named for a prolific inventor, aims to reward inventions that help poor countries develop. - New York Times
  7. ^ Julia Novy-Hildesley, "Social Entrepreneurship Yields High Returns," Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2007.
  8. ^ Salem-news.com/printview.php?id=7070. "Lemelson Foundation Donates $2M to Clinton Global Initiative," Portland Business Journal, 26 September 2007; http://treehugger.com/files/2007/10/envirofit_cgi.php Retrieved on August 28, 2008.
  9. ^ Lemelson Center: Explore invention at the Lemelson Center
  10. ^ Lemelson Center: Resources
  11. ^ Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams: High School Invention Grant, Outreach
  12. ^ Inventor's Handbook
  13. ^ http://smitny.blogspot.com/2006/11/nciia-prototyping-patent-nyu-and-lesgc.html
  14. ^ Keen Mobility Advanced E-Team
  15. ^ Design for the Other 90%, McNeil, Donald G., Jr. (May 29, 2007). "Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor", The New York Times.
  16. ^ KickStart
  17. ^ Self Employed Women's Association - SEWA MEMBER BASED organization of poor working women
  18. ^ I D E A A S - Instituto para o Desenvolvimento de Energias Alternativas
  19. ^ L-Ramp: A Boon for Innovators
  20. ^ Suritech - Fish Meat and Bone Separating Machine
  21. ^ Inotek Foundation
  22. ^ Lemelson RAMP Peru

External links[edit]