Colleges Nurture World-Changing Inventions

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- College campuses are an increasingly fertile breeding ground for inventors, many of whom have an eye on the global marketplace.

Each year, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance hosts its annual Open Minds showcase of student innovation (formerly known as March Madness for the Mind). This year, the event will be held March 26 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's cheaper and improved cycle rickshaw carts are among several college inventors' products showing March 26 at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance's Open Minds showcase.

Approximately 100 patent applications have resulted from projects supported by NCIIA grants, leading to an equal number of business startups.

Student-created prototypes -- covering a spectrum of industries that include energy, medical, mobile and transportation -- on display at this year's showcase include:
  • A compact generator that uses household waste and a tiny bit of water to make electricity, with even a twig being enough to run a bank of LEDs that can light a room for hours or, eventually, charge a cell phone and other devices (Arizona State University).
  • An affordable, pressurized shower system designed for Chile's poorest areas that has quickly spread beyond its intended market, reducing the spread of disease in developing regions. (Art Center College of Design).
  • A mobile-based social network intended to link people and businesses in off-the-grid areas, being piloted this spring in South Africa (Pennsylvania State University).
  • Cycle rickshaw carts that improve upon traditional models used in India, but are more affordable so they can be eventually bought by their operators, rather than rented (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Humera Fasihuddin, who oversees student venture coaching and mentoring for NCIIA, also manages BME-IDEA, a national student competition in biomedical engineering and founded Edical May, a manufacturing and business development company enabling scale-up of new medical devices. She says the collaborative environment of most campuses enable students with an entrepreneurial bent and inspires others to think like an inventor.

"The career path isn't so laid out, those entry-level jobs just aren't there and what is there is just not what students want to do," she says. "So they can make their own."

For these students, any corner of their dorm room can serve as an R&D facility. Fasihuddin tells of one team of students who grew mushrooms under their bed as part of an effort to create a flame-retardant substance that might someday replace Styrofoam in packaging or offer an alternative for home insulation.

Students may be in a better position to devote the time and energy needed to develop a viable product, she says.

"They don't have a mortgage and they usually don't have kids," she says. "They can be lean and mean, and college provides them access to the infrastructure, partnerships and people that can help make the funding and implementation of those opportunities possible."

Many campus creators look to balance commercial adaptability with a socially relevant pursuit.

"These are students wanting to make a better world," Fasihuddin says. "They are identifying problems and coming up with very creative solutions to do good and make money at the same time."

One such example from Open Minds, on its way to market, is a device that uses freeze-dried medicine to improve shelf life and provide a "just in time vaccine" that can be a lifesaver in remote areas. Another is a $2 "birth kit" that can greatly reduce the risk of infection in Third World countries by providing a sterile instrument to cut the umbilicle cord and giving mothers a sterile floor covering to lay upon.

"This generation is much more socially aware, the world is flatter," Fasihuddin says. "There is much more access available about problems halfway around the world and how you can overcome that strife by solving some of these basic health and human needs."

Helping others can, in fact, be a good business plan, Fasihuddin says.

"There is money to be made, and with microfinance at work in the developing world in a way that wasn't 10 or 15 years ago, students are figuring out the business models," she says.

Even private investors can sometimes be sold on such plans.

"Patient angel investors and venture capitalists are understanding that they can do good with their money and realizing their returns will come over time," she says. "This is an entirely new class of investors that go to conferences like the Social Capital Conference in the Bay area."

Both they, and the inventors they fund, are learning more and more about what it takes to be a success in these once ignored marketplaces.

"You are definitely seeing greater access to markets and a lot more written on how to penetrate those markets, different business models that work and price points you have to hit," Fasihuddin says, adding that you cannot just necessarily "take the same old U.S. products and cram them down another market's throat."

"You have to employ different techniques and materials, customized as to how they are delivered to the customers," she says.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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