Friday, February 12, 2010

Youthful Ideas

'Tis February, and a college student's thoughts turn to.....innovation?

For students on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, this is certainly the case. This week brought two very fun events: Innovation Days, a competition organized by the UW Department of Engineering; and the Wiscontrepreneur 100 Hour Challenge, offered by the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations. 

UW undergrads competing in Innovation Days are pursuing a total of $28,450 in prize money across four different contests. The top prize of $10,000 is for the Schoofs Prize for Creativity, which is intended "to awaken students to the potential embedded in their own talent, and thereby encourage creativity and entrepreneurship". Other categories include the Tong Prototype Prize and awards for best presentation and best design notebook, respectively.

This year’s contestants cover 23 inventions, with titles ranging from “Intelliwindows” to “Tri Crimp”. The presentations were open to the public on Thursday and Friday at the UW School of Engineering. The keynote speaker? Matt Younkle, serial entrepreneur. He co-invented the TurboTap – a device to pour draft beers rapidly – which won the Schoofs Prize in 1996. Younkle’s team later brought the TurboTap to market through their company, Laminar Technologies LLC, and the TurboTap was dubbed “Most Amazing Invention” by Time Magazine. If you’ve had a beer at a major sporting stadium in the past five years, it was probably used to pour your beverage.

And on tap for next week (ok, couldn’t resist that transition)….is the Wiscontrepreneur 100 Hour Challenge, running February 17-21. Taking a cue straight from “Junkyard Wars”, this event allows students a stipend of $15 to gather materials from the UW Surplus With A Purpose shop. Students then put their best creative foot forward to see what working inventions they can come up with in a 100-hour working period. Past winners include a team that developed a working water purification system using $10 worth of material that could be used for bacterial- or sewage-contaminated water.

I can’t wait to see what the kids come up with this year.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Mark Twain on the USPTO, circa 1867

February was a blur; I have three or four new posts in various stages of completion, so check back soon. In the meantime, I offer a quote from The Innocents Abroad, which I'm in the midst of reading. The remark was written by Twain (or Sam Clemens, as it were) while he was touring Rome and the Vatican on an expedition to the Mediterranean in 1867, and published two years later.

The popes have long been the patrons and preservers of art, just as our new, practical republic is the encourager and upholder of mechanics. In their Vatican is stored up all that is curious and beautiful in art; in our Patent Office is hoarded all that is curious or useful in mechanics. When a man invents a new style of horse collar or discovers a new and superior method of telegraphing, our government issues a patent to him that is worth a fortune; when a man digs up an ancient statue in Campagna, the Pope gives him a fortune in gold coin. We can make something of a guess at a man's character by the style of nose he carries on his face. The Vatican and the Patent Office are governmental noses, and they bear a deal of character about them.

Fascinating read, this book - so many deeply imbedded "modern" American personality quirks, assumptions, and unconscious habits are described in full. Try this: read Twain with tongue firmly in cheek. Watch 20 episodes of The Daily Show. Read more Twain. Read America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. And then tell me if there isn't something to the notion that Jon Stewart is a reincarnation of Twain.

Photo of Mark Twain/Sam Clemens was taken by Matthew Brady in 1871.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Six dots that open the world

The holidays often bring news from friends in all corners of the world, and this year was no exception. One of the most fascinating updates was from a friend living in East Lansing, Michigan, where I attended graduate school at Michigan State University. I met her when I was studying at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory. A member of the talented staff who keep the institute running, she is a scientific editor and often lent her keen eyes to my first manuscripts. She wrote this year to describe dual and overlapping interests, music and Braille:

“Personally, my life is becoming ever more centered around music. I continue to struggle through violin lessons (with a most wonderfully patient teacher), and to play in a quartet and community orchestra--so thrilling! About five years ago, I was certified as a braille transcriber and joined a group of braillists transcribing textbooks into braille for students. That group disbanded last fall, as most of the younger members were in their 70s and had been brailling for decades. So, I decided to pursue my original idea, which was to work toward certification in music braille. I have read that there are fewer than 40 people in the country who have such certification, so the need is great. I am constantly overwhelmed by the ingenuity of Louis Braille, who devised both of these systems of representation by dots. A braille cell has only six dots, and yet a sheet of music, with different voices, lyrics, whatever, can be reproduced in a series of braille cells. Of course, it's incredibly complex and there are days when I wonder how I could have imagined this old dog could learn a new "language" at my age, but I also really enjoy working at it. It seems to satisfy my urge to work crossword puzzles, yet has the added attraction of being potentially useful. If I manage to finish the course, that is. :)

January 4, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth and the National Federation of the Blind is sponsoring initiatives designed to bring the importance of braille literacy for blind children to national attention. You can view a very moving video, "Braille: Unlocking the Code," on the NFB website: In March, a limited edition coin commemorating Braille's birth will be issued to raise awareness of the needs of blind people.”

My friend’s letter prompted me to learn more about the braille system and the life of Louis Braille. Interestingly, the precursor of the Braille system was a method of military communication developed by Charles Barbier de la Serre for Napoleon’s army called “night writing”. Berbier’s method used a series of twelve raised dots to represent 36 sounds. The military desired such a system so that soldiers could communicate battle plans at night silently, without need for illumination. However, when Berbier demonstrated his system to Louis and other students at the Royal Institute for Blind Children in Paris, Louis immediately realized why the system failed to be adopted: the human finger could not accommodate twelve dots, and the code was too complex. By the age of 15, Louis had developed a new method that relied on a six-dot cell. Braille and its precursors are thought by some linguistic experts to be the first example of a binary written language system in history. In current usage, the English alphabet braille system includes contractions and contextual meaning for needed brevity.

Though Braille’s innovative contribution was enormous, it does not appear that he (a French citizen) ever sought a U.S. patent claiming the braille system, although he did publish a book in 1829 about the system titled “Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them”. However, a search of the US Patent and Trademark Office site of issued patents with the term “braille” returns 1907 patents, ranging in date from 1926 to the present. Examples include display apparatuses for the braille system, writing devices and printing systems, and even a chess set incorporating braille notation (US Pat. No. 7,347,421).

If you are interested in becoming a certified braille transcriptionist, you can find more information from the National Federation of the Blind. Madison residents can attend a local Braille celebration event hosted by the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired this Wednesday, January 7; for more information, see If you don’t live in the Madison area, check around for a local event – celebrations and information sessions are being held nationwide.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Innovate this

Last night I attended an “Innovation” talk presented by Accelerate Madison and WTN (Wisconsin Technology Network). The seminar was at the Fluno Center – which always provides tasty nibbles, by the way – and was given by Tom Koulopoulos, who has is on the consulting/speaking engagement/book-writing/web seminar circuit. Funny thing: the first time an e-blast went out to advertise the seminar, the Monday night seminar was simply billed as a “kickoff address and social”. After several weeks of news coverage showing Wall Street brokers sweating profusely and gripping their heads, the seminar was titled “How do You ‘Future Proof’ Yourself and Your Enterprise?”

The well-polished presentation did give some food for thought, principally on the need to accommodate – no, embrace with wild abandon – the principle of uncertainty. Within organizations, within marketplaces, within…well, everything. Koulopoulos made the assertion that 2009 will be a crucible of innovative change as small-but-mighty startups and entrepreneurs will make technological leaps that come out of nowhere and leave hand-wringing corporate CEOs in the dust. (Oddly enough, I saw another article in an issue of Forbes magazine making exactly the same point. No, I don’t subscribe to Forbes. It was in my optometrist’s waiting room.)

But the major take-home message from the speaker was his viewpoint on the difference between innovation and invention. In essence, Koulopulos defined invention as the creation of objects without regard to their usefulness or commercial value. (Think: SkyMall catalog, the Sharper Image.) Whereas innovation involves creating value, and rarely involves invention. Invention was blamed as causing an “ecological nightmare” – that is, the never-ending stream of marginally useful, short-lifecycle/long-landfill residency e-waste. He then used the iPod to illustrate his point, asserting that “there was no invention involved in creating the iPod…Apple simply licensed (X, Y, and Z) components….” (I’m paraphrasing).

No inventive concept went into the iPod? No novel intellectual property? Are you kidding me?

Let’s take a closer look.

An advanced search of published, pending patent applications at the US Patent and Trade Office with keyword iPod and assignee Apple (search query: iPod and an/apple) yields 65 pending published applications. (You get slightly different results if you search an/”apple computer” versus an/”apple inc” – apparently the filing parties have a slight identity crisis.) For issued patents, the count is 42. Not surprisingly, a fair number of the issued patents are design patents – this is Apple, after all. But a very brief survey of both issued and pending shows a wide variety of method and composition patents. US 7,312,785, for example, pertains to accelerated scrolling, a feature any iPod user with a reasonably sized music library is familiar with. 7,333,092 claims the device itself. Other patents and applications claim various iPod components or features – the touch pad, iPod-CPU interface systems, dynamic volume control systems, methods for controlling the device by defined gestures – basically, think of all the goodies that makes iPods so beloved, and they’re there. You really think Apple didn’t have any novel, non-obvious intellectual property that went into this line of market-dominant devices? Good grief. Think again. (Or, more precisely, think different.)

So three cheers for innovation. And inventiveness. And everything in between.

Let’s get cooking, folks. 2009 is just around the corner.

(Note: Royalty-free photo of child and computer by artist Chance Agrella was provided by Free Range Stock.)

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