British household device genius James Dyson has been holding a design and engineering competition for college students since 2007, offering rewards of fame and $45,000. Each team must come up with a bright idea to solve some problem, any problem, from drought to motorcycle accidents.
In the age of the Breakthrough Prize, the X Prize, and the Longitude Prize, a $45,000 inventing competition might seem a touch quaint. But the Dyson Award holds great prestige, and for a college student or recent grad, such a prize and the international recognition it draws are a boon. Not only that, the resulting projects invariably end up being some of the coolest tricks and gadgets we see in any given year.
Another great thing about the Dyson Prize is that quite a few people are actually recognized. In the first phase, one national winner from each participating country takes home $3,500. But four other runners up from each country, making a total of 90 projects, are chosen and sent to the next step. From there, only one international winner is chosen each year (by Dyson himself), but there are 20 runners up who each win $7,500.
So who wins these awards? Well, the brief is intentionally broad: Design something that solves a problem. Many projects chosen involve a redesign of some familiarly lame or problematic item—not too surprising, given that Dyson is famous for reinventing the vacuum, the hand dryer, and the household fan. The national winners were just announced, and among them are improvements to a doctor’s tongue depressor, the camping stove, the shopping cart, and the hospital feeding tube.
Some of the contenders take on weighty topics such as multiple proposals for apparatuses to improve the mobility of the disabled. One device scans and 3D-prints custom prosthetic noses. Another 3D printing device produces structures that mimic human skin.
While entries certainly don’t have to be world changing or lifesaving, the international winners in the past have all tended to take on Big Problems. In 2012, for example, Dan Watson of the UK created a new fishing net that provides escape holes for non-targeted fish, taking on the problem of overfishing and bycatch. The 2011 prize winner was Australian student Edward Linnacre, who created a device for countries suffering from drought that captures moisture in the air that can be used to then irrigate crops. The device uses biomimicry, imitating the behavior of a desert beetle.
And last year’s winner was bit more sci-fi, with an American team winning for its upper body exoskeleton Titan Arm, which can increase the strength of laborers and physical therapy patients.
To learn more about participating in the Dyson awards, and to browse the national winners and runners up, check out the Dyson site.