As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve had inventions on the brain here at PopSci lately. Our Invention Awards issue (on newsstands now) presents 10 stunning examples of everyday people envisioning solutions to challenging problems and not stopping until they become reality. We’ve shown you a rocket-powered net that could prevent insurgents from shooting down choppers; a stronger, quieter fastener that makes Velcro look positively ancient; and a compact rope-ascender unit that lets climbers rappel up a wall.
After reading about these amazing inventions, you may be wondering how someone goes from that eureka moment we’ve all had at one time or another to actually building something that solves a problem. Here, we’ve assembled an A list of inventive minds to offer their own advice for doing just that. Our panel includes Web entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, engineering whizzes like Segway-inventor Dean Kamen, and visionary thinkers like futurist Ray Kurzweil.
Launch the slideshow for our invention tips from the pros.**
A complete listing of our Invention Award winners thus far (note, we’ve got two more to come next week):
- A Levitating Arrow Rest – Makes archers stealthier and more accurate with some well-placed magnets
- A Shocking New Weapon – A muscle-numbing magic wand protects cops and citizens, Jedi-style
- A Six Strokes of Genius – An engine that uses steam to squeeze more miles from gas
- A Chopper Shield – Catches helicopter-bound grenades with a net made of Kevlar and steel
- A Big Ball of Connectivity – An antenna that blows up like a balloon brings satellite communications anywhere, anytime.
- The New Velcro – A stronger, better grip without the incessant ripping sound. Has a long-standing dream finally been realized?
- A New Breed of Mouse – Give your mouse the finger to control your computer in three dimensions
- The Flying Belt – Rappel up a wall at an astonishing 10 feet per second with the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender
Three Ways to Make a Prototype
The Fab@Home rapid-prototyping machine can print just about any object in three dimensions using a wide variety of materials, from chocolate to silicone. Kits sell for around $2,500. Learn more at fabathome.org, and check out our interview with the company’s founder. CNC Machining
CNC (computer numerical control) machines take instructions from a computer and cut pieces from a larger block. Commercial models can cost thousands of dollars, but you can find plans for making your own at engadget.com. Ordering Online
Not ready to invest in your own equipment? Head to emachineshop.com, where you can pick a material, draw a part, and have it delivered to your door.
a social-networking site with more than 20 million users that’s been estimated to be worth $1 billion Focus on something you think is important. Rather than trying to start a company just to make money, come up with things that would make an impact and be valuable to the world. Making mistakes online is relatively cheap. You’re not physically shipping a product, you’re just changing code. You don’t have to get everything right the first time. Give people granular control over their privacy. People are willing to share more information if they have complete control over it. Hire technical people. Everyone in our company has to know how to code. It helps keep us on the same page. I think the billion-dollar thing is a rumor.
-as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
Make it Practical
Inventor, AirScooter gyrocopter and HyperSonicSound directed-acoustic device; winner, $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, 2005 Almost nothing has been invented yet. OK, all the easy stuff has been invented, like the lightbulb-what’s that: a coil, wire and a vacuum? You don’t need to stick to one field, but the inventions where you don’t have to possess a great deal of knowledge-the hula hoop, the Frisbee-those are all gone. Find a niche where big corporate groups don’t dominate. A new solid rocket fuel or a hadron collider-those are multimillion-dollar investments. Ask yourself, is it realistic for me to invent this? Then ask: Is it commercially plausible? If you invent a novel ballpoint pen that’s going to cost $100,000, nobody’s going to care. Find an analogy, something well established in one area of science-acoustics, physics, optics, electronics -and apply it to a different area. You know it works in one field, so it’s worth your time to test it in another. Call a professor who works in the field your invention falls under. Offer to buy him lunch and then pick his brain. Same goes for a patent lawyer, who will usually talk to you for half an hour for free. Read everything. Pay attention to problems that need to be solved, whether you’re in a restaurant or working on your car. One of my favorite quotes I heard somewhere is “Most inventions are accidents observed.” Make a prototype, even if you have to fashion it out of clay or carve it out of paraffin wax with a paring knife. Once you have your invention, check to make sure nothing like it has been patented yet. I like to use delphion.com, uspto.gov and patentcafe.com. Patent everything. You don’t want someone to tweak one thing on your invention, patent it, and negate all your effort. Someone could find a cheaper-even if it’s a worse-way to do it, so I patent even the terrible versions of my idea. Don’t be secretive. Worrying about someone stealing your invention can stifle you. You need to talk to other people to expand your knowledge base. I talk about all my ideas, and in more than 30 years of inventing, I’ve never had anyone steal one.
-as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
Inventor, Segway; member, National Inventors Hall of Fame Reputation is one of your most valuable assets; it’s what makes us believe Google or Apple when they say they have an innovative new product. Build your reputation by winning contests, getting in publications, and aligning yourself with a university or organization, and get credible third-party testing to corroborate your claims. Look for a reputable company to partner with. They’ve got global reach and expertise in marketing, sales, distribution and financing. You don’t have to build your own. Be careful with inventor-advice companies-most take advantage of enthusiastic inventors and aren’t much different from get-rich-quick schemes. It’s slower and more difficult to find a good business partner, but worth it. Go to trade shows as closely aligned to your field as possible. The more specific your focus, the more likely you are to succeed, because you can target real potential partners. Don’t rely on marketing spin to generate interest in your product. Never promise that your invention can do something it can’t.
-as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
Contests and Shows
** Prize: $25,000 Deadline: June 15
Bring your A game to compete against the most brilliant graduate and undergraduate student inventors. invent.org/collegiate **The Lemelson-MIT Prize
** Prize: $500,000 Deadline: Oct 12, 2008
Sometimes called the Oscars for inventors, this award typically goes to experienced inventors for patented products or processes “of significant value to society.” web.mit.edu/invent **INPEX Trade Show
** Prize: a chance to get your idea noticed
Deadline: show is held June 6-9; entry deadline is June 1
America’s largest trade show for inventors draws dozens of companies interested in licensing or manufacturing new ideas–and, in the past, camera crews from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. inventhelp.com/inpex-invention-show.asp inventhelp.com/inpex-invention-show.asp
Find the Money
Founder, PayPal; founder and CEO of SpaceX civilian-spaceflight company; venture capitalist; worth an estimated $328 million Make sure your invention matches the interests of who you’re approaching for funding. My fields are rocketry and electric cars, but I still get people trying to sell me on the world’s biggest zipper. Don’t show a PowerPoint presentation. Everything works in PowerPoint, even a magic wand. Demonstrate how it actually works with a prototype. Solve an important problem. If you’re solving a small, silly problem, like a new way to dispense toilet paper, you’re going to get a lot less attention than something that will fundamentally change things. If you’re solving a problem with social value, it’s better to approach foundations. Demonstrate that the cost of making your invention will be affordable for the likely buyer. The market is quite efficient. If you have a working product with economic value, venture-capital firms or high-net-worth individuals will be interested. Don’t worry about credentials. If you have 10 Ph.D.s but you invent something that doesn’t work, people don’t care; if you haven’t finished high school but invent a product that works and matters, people do care.
-as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
Know What’s Next
Member, National Inventors Hall of Fame;
15 honorary doctorates Become an ardent student of technology trends-timing is everything. By gathering data and using mathematical formulas, I can make hundreds of very reliable predictions. Know that progress is exponential, not linear. People think progress in a field will continue at the current pace, but it actually accelerates in exponential growth, which means things can be completely transformed within a decade. Keep a list of inventions you’d like to try as the technology gets closer to making those ideas feasible. Listen to people around you for ideas. Several years ago, I was on a flight sitting next to a blind man. He said he wished he could read text like signs and ATMs. It got me thinking about how we could solve that problem, and I started working with the National Federation of the Blind on a pocket-sized reading machine. [Kurzweil released the device last year.] Inventing is inherently interdisciplinary. Bring a team together to bridge gaps in your knowledge, cross-fertilize, and get creative. The common wisdom is that you can’t predict the future, but that’s just not true.
–as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
Hot Fields for Invention