This Winner of a Big Foundation Prize Aims to Boost Other "Impact Inventors"

The Lemelson-MIT Prize is as much about making an impact as it is about invention. The latest winner not only made some mind-boggling imaging devices, he’s also helping other inventors make a difference.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize is an interesting hybrid of a research award, and its winners are just as interesting, demonstrating a combo of dazzling invention, social conscience, and support for careers of others like them. 

That’s quite a demanding list of objectives, with the Portland-based Lemelson Foundation really getting its money’s worth in terms of cascading positive effects. Then again, Lemelson is giving a half-million dollars to the person who fits the bill each year, with the contest administered by MIT.

Related:Here's Why Sangeeta Bhatia Landed the Lemelson-MIT Prize

That sought-after mix of research, education, and social impact is exemplified by the latest winner, Ramesh Raskar of MIT. 

For starters, there’s Raskar’s scary-smart work in imaging at the Camera Culture Research Group of the MIT Media Lab. He co-invented Femto-photography, otherwise known as a camera that captures images so fast it can see around corners. Oh, and there’s the other imaging system that can read text through stacked pages, potentially reading a book without opening it—a co-author on the paper says, “It’s actually kind of scary.” 

Raskar also works on tech to improve eye-care in remote locations, developing new screening techniques that include a snap-on tool allowing a mobile device to test vision, currently in use in the United States, Brazil, and India. 

But the clincher for the award had to have been his work to empower other inventors to solve social problems collaboratively. Raskar is behind a group approach to invention called REDX, a platform that gathers researchers from several fields, along with institutions and corporate partners, to hash out solutions to pressing global problems. 

There are now REDX labs, and spinoff REDX Clubs that receive training and can apply for funding, all over the world. The clubs hold build-a-thons that identify problems, come up with solutions, and then share what they find on an open platform. Raskar is investing a portion of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize to support the effort. 

It’s that ripple effect of support for other inventors that hits the target for the Lemelson program. The foundation aims to back inventors and invention-based businesses, and inspire young or emerging inventors to solve problems. Note that there’s also an MIT-Lemelson Student Prize for undergrads and grad students.  

One thing that’s fascinating about this prize, and work like Raskar’s that it supports, is that they have a lot in common with Silicon Valley tech accelerators, trying to push ideas to market or otherwise put them to use. But there’s that underlying educational and social impact goal that grounds the effort, envisioning a world where tech breakthroughs really do follow the legendary credo: “Don’t be evil.” 

Related:Lemelson Foundation: Grants for Science Education