Grand designs: 21st century invention

With the field of invention experiencing a golden age, Vision explores some of the most prestigious R&D initiatives, and the new products emerging from them

Invention has always been a driving force in humanity’s progress. For proof, look no further than 1001 Inventions, an international exhibition that showcases scientific and cultural achievements from the Muslim world from the 7th century onwards. It includes the discovery of coffee in 850CE, when an Abyssinian goat herder noticed his animals were livelier after ingesting a certain type of berry, to scalpels and bone saws designed by the surgeon Al-Zahrawi, who lived during the 10th century.

Fast forward a millennium or so and it’s clear that invention has entered a golden era. On a consumer level, the rise of affordable 3D printing technology has enabled armchair inventors to “print,” in a matter of hours, toys and prototypes of objects that once existed only on paper or in their imaginations. Beyond that, the growing popularity of the “Maker” movement has inspired ingenious projects such as a urine-powered generator at last year’s Maker Faire Africa, which received coverage in the international press. The device’s inventors were four 14-year-old girls from Nigeria.

Opportunities

Inventors are further encouraged by a number of prestigious awards and initiatives. The James Dyson Award gives university students and recent graduates around the world in the fields of product design, industrial design and engineering the opportunity to submit ideas and win up to £30,000 to help prototype and commercialise their inventions. Winning projects include the AirDrop, an irrigation device that cools air in underground pipes till the water condenses and then delivers it directly to plant roots; and the Automist, a fire extinguishing device that can be used with a standard kitchen-tap fitting, which is now available to consumers. James Dyson, who established the JDA nine years ago, created more than 5,100 vacuum cleaner prototypes and was repeatedly rejected by manufacturers before he decided to start his own company, which is now worth US$1.5bn.

There are others: the Wall Street Journal’s Asian Innovation Awards, which last year gave top honours to Singapore-based Clearbridge BioMedics, whose CTChip detects cancer cells from blood samples; and the European Inventor Award, established to acclaim the likes of Josef Bille, who developed wavefront technology that made extremely precise and custom laser eye surgery possible, along with the team at Germany’s Smart Fuel Cell AG for creating the first fuel cells for portable use.

In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee recently expanded Takamul, a national innovation support programme that helps individuals and institutions across the country generate ideas and take them to market, with the aim of increasing the number of international patents from the country. Since the programme was launched two years ago, 33 international patents have been filed, with 20 already in process for 2013. They include a device that uses a trio of gyroscopes to assist with balance; a new cellulose material for more efficient energy storage; and wireless finger-printing to facilitate indoor GPS mapping.

“Takamul is a very effective catalyst for the growth of innovation in the UAE,” says Enrico Villa, Associate Director of Enterprise Development. “It has helped many inventors to bring their ideas closer to implementation. It also provides visibility to these inventions, showcasing innovation in Abu Dhabi and encouraging others to develop their own ideas.”

Lucrative inventions

Money is flowing toward invention as well. Jules Pieri, entrepreneur in residence at Harvard Business School and the founder of The Grommet – a curated online marketplace and video review site for under-the-radar products – aims to help inventors with the final piece of the puzzle: sales.

“There’s a huge explosion of ideas from individuals... You can develop a product and get it funded, but not much has changed on the retail side. That’s where we come in,” she says. Instead of going to trade shows and relying on sales reps, luck and connections, The Grommet applies “citizen commerce” (site users) to scout up-and-coming inventions, and then levels the playing field by featuring them on its popular website. Products spotted several years ago that later went mainstream include Bananagrams, a solo travel-friendly, version of Scrabble; and SodaStream, a home soda maker that doesn’t require batteries or electricity and is now sold in more than 30 countries.

“The human drive to create is nothing new, but 10 years ago, the best way to do something fairly independently was to be a hacker or software developer, and that is changing,” Pieri says. She notes that she has judged Harvard Business School’s New Venture competition for three years, and she saw no consumer product companies during her first year. Now, they make up a third of the pitches.

With global R&D spend and interest in innovation on the rise, the future appears especially promising. As the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, once said: “Were it not for scientific progress, civilisation could not have emerged.”