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Lemelson Foundation Promotes Inventive Solutions to Poverty

American inventor Jerome Lemelson

Innovation is helping lift some of the world's poor out of poverty. With devices such as foot-powered pumps in Africa and solar panels in India, inventors and entrepreneurs are creating and distributing affordable technology to improve people's lives. A charitable foundation set up by an American inventor is at the forefront of the effort.

Jerome Lemelson was one of America's most prolific inventors. He was granted more than 600 patents. His ideas for processes or devices are used in bar-code scanners, automated warehouse manufacturing systems, fax and automated teller machines, the crying baby doll, and Sony Walkman portable cassette player.

Lemelson died in 1997 at the age of 74, but the foundation that he set up promotes problem-solving through invention and innovation.

Julia Novy-Hildesle
Julia Novy-Hildesle

One of its ongoing projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology honors a different inventor every year. Julia Novy-Hildesley, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation, says honorees have made scientific breakthroughs.

"Some of these inventors have been designers of the human genome sequencer, incredible technologies around focusing sound in the same way have been able to focus light with lasers, health technologies like the stair-climbing wheelchair and a portable dialysis machine," she said. "So the idea was to recognize these great inventors, hold them up as role models for young people, and help young people see that aspiring to be an inventor is a great thing."

The Lemelson Foundation has established a center to study invention and innovation at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and conducts national programs and competitions for college-age inventors.

From its base in Portland, Oregon, the organization also builds links between Americans and partners in the developing world who are using technology to solve social and environmental problems. It has supported the work, for example, of physician Sathya Jeganathan in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Novy-Hildesley explains, the doctor faced a high rate of infant mortality in the clinic.

Baby incubator, India
Baby incubator, India

"And so she designed with local craftsmen a very low-cost infant warmer," she said. "It was a very simple wooden table with a fitted bulb that would adjust based on the baby's temperature, and had it constructed and implemented in her hospital. And with that innovation, she has reduced infant mortality by 50 percent already."

The foundation has backed another Indian effort, a for-profit social enterprise called SELCO. The company's co-founder, engineer Harish Hande moved to an Indian village so he could understand the villagers' needs and what they could afford, before he started the company.

SELCO Devanhali solar panel
SELCO Devanhali solar panel

"And so he then went back and worked on technology adaptation and designed very low-cost, small affordable solar panels with fitted bulbs, maybe one or two bulbs per household, made sure that the bulbs could be moved from room to room, depending where people wanted the light," she said.

Hande worked with banks to secure the funding so householders could buy the devices.

In Africa, the foundation works with the non-profit organization KickStart, which develops inexpensive technology for small-scale farmers, and sets up local profit-making distribution systems.

SELCO lights
SELCO lights

"Tools that will enable them to grow more crops, grow higher value crops, grow more crops per season or per year, and then be able to earn income from those crops," she said. "So KickStart went forward to design a range of agricultural technologies, the most significant of which has been the foot-powered treadle pump."

The simple mechanical pump draws water from a shallow well or nearby stream or river for use in irrigation.

The foundation official says that poverty in the developing world requires creative solutions, harnessing the power of both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, and nurturing innovators in developing countries, who may include future corporate founders and brilliant scientists.

SELCO silk worm
SELCO silk worm

"We believe strongly that creativity is evenly distributed around the world, and that people Bill Gates [of Microsoft] and Steve Jobs [of Apple] and Albert Einstein are born every day in Africa and Asia and Latin America, but they often do not have access to the same kind of tools or resources that inventors and innovators in the industrialized world do," she said.

She says the organization is working to spread these resources, and is also steering talented American women and minorities into science and engineering, to spur innovation in both the industrial and the developing worlds.