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Lemelson Foundation: Inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises

What do the following people have in common?

  • William Hewlett & David Packard (founders of HP)
  • Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the computer mouse)
  • Robert Langer (prolific bioscience inventor & entrepreneur)
  • Raymond Damadian (inventor of the MRI machine)
  • Thomas Fogarty (inventor of the embolectomy catheter)
  • Dean Kamen (prolific inventor – Segway and infusion pump for diabetes)
  • James Fergason (inventor of liquid crystal displays)
  • John Rogers (inventor of bendable silicon electronics)
  • Angela Belcher (inventor of bacteria inspired catalysts)

All of the above, and many others, are recipients of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize. It is the largest prize in the US given to an individual inventor. All of the above are inventors, and their inventions have saved lives, changed how society communicates, made our industries more sustainable, and have profoundly impacted lives across the globe.

I first heard about The Lemelson Foundation in the context of their sponsorship of the Lemelson-MIT Prize when I came to MIT in 1998. It was easy to tell even back then that the foundation truly sought out and supported the most inventive people in our society – people whose scientific and technological inventions would impact millions, and perhaps billions, of people around the world and change the course of history. As a scientist researcher, then an inventor who became an entrepreneur, and now an investor in startups built around breakthrough technology innovations, it was a matter of great honor that over this past summer I was asked by the Lemelson Foundation to join their Advisory Committee. I agreed, and will proudly join their Board meeting this week in Portland where the Foundation is headquartered.

The Lemelson Foundation was created by prolific US inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy in 1992. Jerome (Jerry – see brief video biography here) had more than 600 patents to his name (earning more than one patent a month over 40 years), and both he and his wife were strong advocates for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education even before creating the Lemelson Foundation. Jerry’s inventions ranged from industrial robotics and machine vision to medical devices, communications equipment and toys. Jerry has now passed away but Dorothy and the Lemelson family have continued their strong support of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship in the US and in several other parts of the world. As the official statement on the website reads: “The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.”

The Lemelson Foundation today sponsors multiple programs to support STEM education, inspire invention and promote entrepreneurship. During time I recently spent with Carol Dahl, its Executive Director who came to the foundation via Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned about their focus on the following:

Education –> Invention –> Innovation –> Entrepreneurship

The above totally resonates with me as it leads to new technologies that advance humanity, save lives, protect our fragile environment & earth’s ecosystem, create jobs and improve livelihoods across the globe. Lemelson’s programs inspire youth to identify interesting problems and solve them via inventions, they provide tools to young inventors to help invent, and help college student entrepreneurs in the launch of invention-based enterprises. In doing so, the Foundation is able to maintain its vision of strengthening the US economy and helping the poorest of the poor in developing countries. 

Over the past 10-15 years I have been fortunate to participate in some of the kinds of activities that The Lemelson Foundation promotes at a much bigger scale. I am proud of the effort some friends and I put into launching the first science and engineering research university in Pakistan (LUMS SBASSE), StartLabs, an organization focused on engineer founders at MIT that I helped start, will be holding their annual Startup Bootcamp next week, and Roughdraft.vc, a student venture fund I co-founded in 2012 has now funded nearly 25 student startups, some of whom have gone on to raise much larger venture financings. Now as a partner at Lux Capital, I am fortunate to be able to spend all of my time meeting amazing inventors, entrepreneurs, and people who wish to change the world for the better. My partner Larry Bock - founder of several companies including Illumina, leading company in genomic sequencing – subsequently founded the National US Science and Engineering Festival, and several other partners are themselves PhDs and inventors on multiple patents. All of them are equally strong supporters of The Lemelson Foundation’s mission.

I very much look forward to learning and contributing to the mission of The Lemelson Foundation. My primary responsibility will be to advise the executive leadership of the Foundation in their planning, execution and assessment of the programs. As such I will be on the lookout for new ideas and feedback. So please do share any thoughts that I can pass on to the Foundation.

“One Cruel Poem” – a Pakistani immigrant thinks out aloud

One of my favorite websites, Pakistaniat (where I had the honor of being an editor during its initial years), posted this wonderful poem. It is recited in Urdu and I wish I could translate it here. Maybe I will when I get a little more time. The author of the post aptly calls it “Ek Zalim Nazm“, meaning “One Cruel Poem“. It is intended for the immigrant Pakistani population, questioning their judgment in leaving their country behind to search for better opportunities, but more importantly for not returning back as they promised when they left the country. This comes at an interesting time for Pakistani immigrants in the US who are observing the tragic flood situation in Pakistan but finding themselves unable to do enough to help the people there.

I am one of those immigrants. I left my home country 15 years ago in search of a better education, and hopefully an opportunity to make something of myself before I returned to my country. I had no idea that 15 years later, I would still be in my host country, in fact a country that I now call home and am a proud citizen of. What happened to promises I made to myself and to my family – as non-verbal as they may have been – to return to my country to make it a better place not just for myself but for all others that I know, love, and care for. I won’t use this space to spell out the many reasons why I haven’t gone back to live in Pakistan – many of them have to do with my personal and professional circumstances. But yes, it is a promise that I did renege on, at least for the time being, and certainly not one I can be proud of.

My country of origin and my birthplace can probably use me for more good than the country that has been so gracious to make me its own. Over the past 15 years I have tried to not just keep my ties alive, but have also tried to contribute in small little ways. I continue to search for opportunities to be involved, to be a part of the change that a new generation of Pakistanis are trying to bring about despite absolutely horrendous hurdles before them. I have tried to be a part of non-profit organizations, written policy white papers, worked with the government in its reform efforts, volunteered time to the founding of a research institution, donated money, and advised/guided students and others….but there really is so much more I could potentially do if I was there in person.

Last night I had dinner with a friend who left an extremely lucrative Wall Street career to go back to Pakistan. In preparation for his return he completed a part-time law degree (despite a hectic investment banking job), and upon returning founded a 3-partner law firm to focus on constitutional and civil law in Pakistan. In a brief 2 year period he has fought constitutional cases on behalf of the provincial government against the federal government to uphold democratic institutions, brought a very senior ranking bureaucratic official to justice for taking law in his own hands, helped find release of countless poor villagers who could not pay for lawyers to fight their cases, and has filed lawsuits on behalf of many villagers who were being bullied by the local landlords. He told me passionately that when he worked days and nights on M&A transactions for his Fortune 100 client, the only motivation was his bonus at the end of the year – so how could he even try to compare that silly reward to what he gets now: gratification that is sincere and obviously goes beyond his income – a poor woman’s tears when his son is freed from jail, a young man’s joy when he gets his land back, and an appreciation from everyone around that he is helping building the country one court case at a time. He is back in the US for 1 year to do his LLM. He is not interested in coursework that most others in his class would follow to get lucrative careers in the US – but he wants to study the history of jurisprudence, theory of law, civil rights, and democracy so he can go back and build his practice stronger. His court cases continue and his associates continue to represent his clients.

My intention was not to be melodramatic about my losses and his wins. But to highlight (a) the responsibility that all of us Americans, but especially immigrants, have towards people who are in need of our skills and our resources, and the value we can bring by just adjusting our schedules slightly to commit a little more time towards helping build our native countries, and (b) the great work that a young, committed, brave generation is doing in Pakistan. I am motivated to do even more going forward, to make more of my resources available. That, I believe, is also a very American thing to do.

Now, for the poem:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TpTs51bTz8&feature=player_embedded#!]

Miles to go before I sleep….

My good friend Adil brought this to my attention via his blog pakistaniat.com. It is a TV advertisement for a mobile phone company in Pakistan. But that is probably the least of what it is. It totally rocked my world. I have heard over and over again for the past hour or so. And I can’t seem to stop. The song, the video, the story has such a strong message – for people like me who left their country of birth in search of a better future, but who have so much they still owe to the country and people they left behind.

I am also reminded of my favorite poem (by Robert Frost):

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suC2rTtxvo&feature=player_embedded#]

also “still trying to figure out what to make of it. As a song. As a video. As message. As an advertisement.” But I know what it is asking of me…from so many of us. I am reminded of my favorite poem by Robert Frost:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Tech Crunch: “What’s Better: Saving the World or Building Another Facebook app?”

Vivek Wadhwa just published an interesting article in TechCrunch discussing what our scientists and engineers could be focusing on. I highly recommend others to read it as well…I hope it will be inspiring to students at our colleges/universities who have the passion to change the world.

In a couple of hours I will be speaking to a large group of Chinese & Chinese-Americans who have gathered to celebrate the Chinese New Year (Happy year of the Tiger!), and my message will be: Think BIG. Life is too short to nibble at the edges of innovation. There are billions of people in this world who would not only benefit from our innovations, but would also be willing to pay a decent price to improve their lives.

There is a way. In 2008, Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering brought together a group of prominent deans of engineering schools from around the country to create a list of Grand Challenges that can be solved by engineers, in our lifetime. These were in several broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living. Dr. Vest believed that “the world’s cadre of engineers will seek ways to put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges. Applying the rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the spark of creative imagination, engineers will continue the tradition of forging a better future”.

Here is the list of the 14 Grand Challenges the deans created:

  • Make solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

via What’s Better: Saving the World or Building Another Facebook app?.

A Step Beyond Human – Hugh Herr is building the world’s most advanced prosthetic foot

A fascinating story of courage, dedication, skill, and genius. Hugh Herr is an inspirational guy…and we, at General Catalyst, are so proud to be a part of his journey.

A Step Beyond Human

Andy Greenberg
Forbes Magazine dated December 14, 2009

MIT professor and double amputee Hugh Herr is building the world’s most advanced prosthetic foot.

On his way to a lunch meeting a few years ago Hugh Herr was running late. So he parked his Honda  Accord in a handicapped parking spot, sprang out of the car and jogged down the sidewalk. Within seconds a policeman called out, asking to see his disability permit. When Herr pointed it out on his dashboard, the cop eyed him suspiciously. “What’s your affliction?” he asked dryly. Herr, a slim and unassuming 6-footer with dark, neatly parted hair, took a step toward the officer and responded in an even tone: “I have no [expletive] legs.”

Blurring the boundaries of disability is a trick that Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at MIT’s Media Lab, has spent the last 27 years perfecting. At age 17 both of Herr’s legs were amputated 6 inches below the knee after a rock climbing trip ended in severe frostbite. Today he’s one of the world’s preeminent prosthetics experts. His goal: to build artificial limbs that are superior to natural ones. His favorite test subject: himself. “I like to say that there are no disabled people,” says Herr, 45. “Only disabled technology.”

Read more at the link below.

via A Step Beyond Human – Forbes.com.