We are thrilled that the Lemelson Foundation is supporting the scale up of the JaipurKnee, as well as building a future pipeline of innovations and design services. So we thought we would interview them: Krista chats with Erin Tochen of Lemelson about her role there, how the Foundation is organized, what makes D-Rev projects a good fit for the Lemelson portfolio, and their favorite speakers at Pop!Tech.
Krista: First, thank you for chatting with me today! Could you start by giving us a background on Lemelson and what you do at the Foundation?
Erin: Sure. I work as a Program Officer at The Lemelson Foundation. The Lemelson Foundation currently supports programs that focus on educating the inventors of tomorrow, mentoring inventors from idea to impact, and developing socially beneficial technologies that improve lives. I develop and manage grants in each area from education through technology development and delivery.
Krista: I’ve read a bit about Jerome Lemelson and his inventions. How does his work influence the vision of the Foundation today?
Erin: Jerome Lemelson believed that in order for this country to remain a world leader in economic growth and technology we need to encourage young people to be inventive and we need to recognize and support burgeoning innovators. The Foundation awarded a number of education and inspiration grants through the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the focus broadened to include international programs developing and disseminating innovative technologies. The goal has historically been to support invention from idea to impact.
As we enter our third decade, the Foundation is now stepping back to reflect on what we have learned and the changes in the field. We want to identify our “sweet spot” where we can be most catalytic in fostering a world where invention is prized and can successfully transition to products with impact.
Krista: We’ve definitely seen that moving from idea to proof-of-concept can happen quickly and often without too many resources. But to move beyond delivery and into true impact – requires many more resources, expertise, and strong partners. What many product designers call the “Valley of Death”- I prefer “hard work” to death, more optimistic! What has Lemelson seen? And do you like my sketch by the way?
Erin: Your sketch is great and we have encountered many innovators and young organizations struggling through that critical part between technology development and delivery at scale. Those that can identify the problem and then develop their technology and their business plan simultaneously with scale in mind seem to make progress toward impact more quickly.
We also think it’s critical to support invention education programs that give young people opportunities to identify local or global problems and then be creative as they seek appropriate solutions. The path to becoming an inventor needs to start at an early age.
Krista: Are you able to give us an early glimpse of where Lemelson sees its “sweet spot”?
Erin: Certainly, a core focus here is inspiring students to invent and supporting invention education programs. We’ll continue to engage in mentoring and supporting early-stage innovators creating sustainable technological solutions that have strong potential to scale. We’ll also seek to play a role in creating robust and navigable ecosystems, in the U.S. and developing countries, through which inventors can translate inventions to impact.
Krista: I appreciate that Lemelson looks at impact from the beginning – AND we are thrilled that you are supporting D-Rev’s scale up of the JaipurKnee, our high-performance $80 prosthetic knee – see the video of an amputee in Jaipur, India walking with our knee – and some of our early pipeline work to develop new products.
Erin: We are also thrilled to be working with D-Rev! We’re looking forward to learning from your experience and looping you into our network to disseminate that learning.
The Foundation has supported the development of assistive technologies in the past, and the JaipurKnee project has many of the puzzle pieces in place (co-funding, local partnerships, distribution channel, sustainability plan, etc.), driving it toward successful implementation. We feel confident that our support will push you closer to a final product that will be broadly disseminated. Equally, we are very interested in learning along with you as you build your early pipeline work and think about technology design for specific developing country contexts.
In return I’d like to ask, what do you hope to get out of your partnership with the Lemelson Foundation?
Krista: We’re excited to have your support with the JaipurKnee, through which we can bring mobility and economic freedom to amputees in developing countries around the world. One of things we are trying to learn about are the different models to effectively and sustainably deliver and scale products to maximize their social impact. From our experience, we believe that the market holds us designers more accountable for the products we develop. Markets don’t always function properly – even if the products are well designed — particularly often in places where potential impact is the highest. Lemelson supports a range of innovations with different business models to reach impact. We’re excited to learn from the successes and lessons of your network.
A last question – since I just saw you at PopTech a few weeks ago. Did you have any favourite speakers? I thought there were so many amazing ones! I think my favourites were Aidan Dwyer, the 13-year old who made the photovoltaic “trees” with the branches in a Fibonacci series, Iain Couzin on swarm behavior and the Parazit guys.
Erin: One of my favorites was also Aidan Dwyer. His natural curiosity about the world around him resulted in these amazing photovoltaic trees. I hope to see future inventions from him! I also really enjoyed Simon Hauger’s talk on his new school, The Sustainability Workshop, and the two military officers, Mark Mykleby and Wayne Porter, on their National Strategic Narrative urging this nation to move away from overt militarization and think more about education and sustainable infrastructure. I also really enjoyed your talk, Krista!!
It’s been great to chat with you!
Krista: THANK YOU, Erin!