Whether it happens among students in a classroom, or engineers in a laboratory, innovation is a process, a series of steps that begins with imagination, and results in the creation of something of value for society. “Science of Innovation” is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Science of Innovation- What Is Innovation?
ANN CURRY, reporting:
Thomas Edison's electric lamp, Orville and Wilbur Wright and their flying machine, Walt Disney's art of animation camera, Steve Wozniak and the microchip for use with video display, Stephanie Kwolek's protective fabric, even Michael Jackson's method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion. What they and many others share is something called innovation.
USPTO Volunteer Educator: So you want to do triangles? That's a triangle, that's a triangle.
CHRISTYANN PULLIAM (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office): The students are designing and building candy bridges. We started by introducing them to different types of bridges.
CURRY: Whether it happens among students in a classroom, or engineers in a laboratory, innovation is a process, a series of steps that begins with imagination, and results in the creation of something of value for society.
PULLIAM : Innovation is improving upon the knowledge and information that’s out there and taking what is already known in the world and improving it, making it better.
CURRY: Christyann Pulliam is a supervisory patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, the USPTO is an agency of the Department of Commerce that employs over 8,000 patent examiners, many of whom are scientists and engineers.
PULLIAM : It is the agency in the United States government, which oversees patent and trademark functions.
CURRY: A patent gives the inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or offering for sale, their invention without permission for a limited period of time. On average, the USPTO receives about 500,000 patent applications a year. It also registers trademarks, which help designate the source of products or services.
PULLIAM : The trademarks can be logos, brand names most commonly, but they can also be colors.
CURRY: A trademark can be almost anything-- characters, shapes, and even sounds, such as NBC's signature three-note chime. The innovation process begins with vision, creativity, and the simple desire to address a particular problem or need.
PULLIAM : You have to see what’s out there and see a problem that you want to fix, and then you have to come up with a way to fix it.
NATHANIEL FAIRFIELD (Software Engineer, Google): Figuring out a new technique, a new method, a new combination of existing things, any of those things can be innovative.
CURRY: Beyond just an idea, innovation also often requires financial support. In the U.S., many innovations are funded by government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, as well as by private companies, foundations and other institutions. The NSF, an independent federal agency, issues about 10,000 grants per year for research and education in fields of science and engineering.
Prof. YONGGANG HUANG (Northwestern University): We write a proposal to the National Science Foundation to explain this is our idea, to explain how the device or science will benefit society.
CURRY: Beyond imagination, research, and funding, innovation also requires vision, persistence, and the involvement of people from different backgrounds and varied expertise who collaborate in order to create a new product or process, something that may solve a problem in a new way.
Prof. HAMAYOON KAZEROONI (University of California, Berkeley): Teamwork is important because now you have many eyes on the same problem from a different angle. Teamwork is so essential that I would say without any hesitation that it won’t happen without teamwork.
Prof. JOHN ROGERS (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): And you don’t really know where the shortcomings are, where the most powerful refinements are until you actually go through the process of doing the experimentation, building the devices, doing a few design iterations.
CURRY: To apply for a patent, the inventor is required to fully disclose the necessary details about the idea, which is then investigated by a patent examiner. The patent examiner conducts a thorough examination of previous patents, scholarly journals, the internet, and other sources to ensure the invention is new. During this process, the inventor is often asked to make revisions to the application to help clarify the invention and distinguish it from others.
Prof. MICHAEL CIMA (MIT): There’s a lot of give and take with the patent examiner so that their job is to help you craft the language of these claims, so you’re not overstepping onto somebody else’s property.
PULLIAM : It takes quite a bit of time to do all that searching and to produce office actions, allowances, rejections for each application that’s handled here at the office. Right now the average filing to first action for a patent application is about 23 months.
CURRY: Congress has passed the “America Invents Act,” and one of its goals is to reduce the amount of time a patent application takes to be processed. Once a patent is issued, the inventor has a tool to protect his or her invention against patent infringement, which occurs when someone makes, uses, sells, or attempts to sell the invention without the inventor's permission. But when a patent is issued, the innovation process doesn't end. Instead, the patent’s disclosure of the details of the invention helps other people draw on the knowledge and potentially inspire future innovations.
KAZEROONI: That enables the next generation to learn your stuff and come up to a new set of knowledge to go forward.
PULLIAM : If you don’t bring it into the world, then the inventor down the street might not be able to improve upon it if they don’t know that it’s out there. So it’s about sharing that knowledge.
CURRY: Perhaps most important in the innovation process, in addition to having imagination, is education, especially in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math, providing the base that can help a student become an innovator. USPTO volunteers work with local students to help promote innovation.
PULLIAM (USPTO): It’s so exciting to see the light go on and the spark when these kids figure out that they know how to do it, that they have an idea, that they can implement it.
CURRY: Whether building a candy bridge or designing a new machine, innovation is what helps us imagine, invent, improve and inspire others, and along the way give back to the world.
It's a long way from a wax prototype of a hover-bike to mass production, but a first-time inventor has to start somewhere.
Eleven-year-old Hunter Wright carefully pressed together the diminutive wax strands that his teammates built, as they discussed what features they should incorporate. Add a snack box for the hungry hover-bicyclist? Make sure it flies high enough to avoid traffic, but also low enough to take the dog for a walk, they agreed.
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