What good is being a science or tech whiz if you can’t turn it into a little scratch?
So goes the strategy behind The Lemelson Foundation’s U.S. Incubation Program. To frame it more accurately—what good is it for society to have a bunch of innovative grads going out into the world with no idea how to turn their brainy skills into profitable businesses? Since 2007, the foundation has given more than $19 million to one New England-based initiative that it helped launch to solve that very problem.
That may not seem like the most altruistic focus for a STEM education funder, but it’s all part of the Portland-based foundation’s unique strategy to improve society. Lemelson is entirely focused on making lives better by fostering successful inventors and invention-based enterprises. The foundation—launched by the late American inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy—sees invention as a way to both build a vibrant economy and improve quality of life, in the United States as well as in developing countries.
Within that overall strategy lies the U.S. Incubation program. The program is designed to help young inventors starting their careers to understand the wheeling and dealing side of science and tech — planning, pitching, scaling, etc. — but also goes so far as to provide seed funding to some of its more promising proteges.
Lemelson’s main conduit for this work is the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Based in western Massachusetts, NCIIA started at the urging of Jerome Lemelson himself in the 1990s, as a joint project along with five regional colleges. The initiative became in independent nonprofit in 2007 and, while it still enjoys major backing from Lemelson, it’s gained funding from NSF, USAID and other private funders and now partners with nearly 200 schools.
The program involves a few avenues of support. First, it supports faculty programs that teach how to establish innovation businesses. It also has student programs called E-Teams and VentureWell, which support student-run, or student-and-faculty-run projects, helping them turn their ideas into viable business plans, and supplying seed investment of up to $50,000 in later stages to the most promising endeavors.
NCIAA and Lemelson boast 180 businesses launched, helping to leverage their early investments into $365 million of additional funding.
Some of those businesses have drawn notable attention, and many of them have ambitions much more profound than to become the next vehicles for selfies and cat photos.
For example, two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students launched Ecovative Design, which makes insulation and packaging from fungus, and has gone on to win awards and land a feature in the New Yorker in 2013. Another exciting project is a Baylor University-based project to deliver pico-hydropower to poor villages, harnessing small neighboring streams into cheap hydroelectric power.