FORBES ARTICLE: The Greatest Young Inventors in America
November 13th, 2012
Today the Collegiate Inventors Competition named the 2012 winners of the annual contest to find the best graduate student and undergraduate inventors in the U.S., choosing from hundreds of entrants from across the country.
The grand prize winner among graduate students was Inanc Ortac, of the University of California, San Diego, for what he calls Nano-Wiffle-Balls for Cancer Therapy. That’s an ingenious drug delivery system that involves making a silicon wiffle ball structure a millionth the size of a wiffle ball and sealing an enzyme inside. Thanks to innovative chemical treatments, the ball serves as a cage that hides the enzyme from the immune system until it gets to its target tumor, where an anti-cancer drug is released. Discussing the invention, Ortac said, “When I first had the idea, my professor said it was one of the best ideas he had ever heard of. Then he said, it will never work.” Making it work took Ortac three years, but it dazzled a panel of judges that included Marcian E. Hoff, coinventor of the microprocessor, Alois Langer, coinventor of the implantable cardiac defibrillator, Thomas Fogarty, inventor of the balloon catheter, and Donald Keck, inventor of fiber optics. (Disclosure: I am on the board of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and helped oversee the judging process.)
The winner among undergraduate inventors was a team of four students at Johns Hopkins University, Leslie Myint, Daniel Peng, Andy Tu, and Stephen van Kooten, for FastStich, a breakthrough handheld machine for sewing sutures in abdominal surgery both faster and more safely than traditional methods allow. But every one of the seven graduate and seven undergraduate entries was remarkable. The other graduate finalists entries were Jerome Bonnet and Pakpoom Subsoontom of Stanford University, for devising a way to handle DNA as a string of rewritable bits usable as a computer; Luo Gu of the University of California, San Diego, for a technique for using fluorescence to image tumors in vivo; Carol Jurchenko and Daniel Stabley of Emory University, for a nano scale that employs fluorescence to measure the force on the surface of a cell; Chad Mourning and Scott Nykl of Ohio University, for an altimeter that can warn pilots about turbulence caused by planes landing ahead of them; second runner-up Tamer Badawy of Wayne State University, for an innovation that enables a diesel engine to run optimally on a surprisingly wide variety of fuels; and first runner-up S. Brett Walker of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for reactive silver inks that can print electronic circuits on surfaces as unlikely as cellophane and paper. That invention has already had interest from a slew of major electronics and medical device companies.
I can picture just about any of these student researchers as an inductee into the Hall of Fame someday alongside the likes of Hoff and Langer and Fogarty and Keck. There was even talk among judges of a possible Nobel Prize far in the future. There may be too little support of high-level technical innovation in America today, but there are some truly amazing young scientists coming out of our best schools, and these inventors prove it.