Prizes Help Young Inventors Get Their Creative Juices Flowing

But colleges, businesses seek more ways to spark ideas and products

Jerome Little is a bass guitarist - and self-described tinkerer. So instead of putting up with the physical difficulty of playing speedy riffs on distant frets, he decided to invent a way around it.

For his senior thesis at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Mr. Little researched the problem, then designed and built a new "Blizzard Bass."

Little's bass, which sat beside such renowned makes as Fenders and Rickenbackers at a recent electric-guitar exhibition at the Museum of American History in Washington, is a symbol of the increased emphasis educators are placing on graduating students who are inventive and willing to take an entrepreneur's risks to market their inventions.

Funding for Little's project came from the Lemelson National Program on Invention, Innovation, and Creation at Hampshire College, a unique program aimed at encouraging college students to invent. Established in 1993 by noted inventor Jerome Lemelson, it offers fellowships to students nationwide to come to the school and build marketable products.

Such efforts come at a time when the United States faces growing competition, especially from Pacific Rim countries, says Philip Weilerstein, program manager for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), headquartered at Hampshire College.

Japan in particular has undertaken "a real effort to train people to be innovative," he says. "They see that you need to consciously think about it. It doesn't just happen." At the same time, he adds, "new guidelines for US engineering schools are aimed at training students to succeed in the real world - a criterion that will be used to accredit the schools."

For years, students have been encouraged to enter design competitions within institutions. Or they enter such contests as BFGoodrich's Collegiate Inventors Program, which offers cash prizes for the best inventions. This month, Nathan Kane, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student award for several inventions, including a new kind of industrial bellows that can be made from a single piece of plastic sheeting.

Such prizes give needed recognition to young inventors and raise their profile, says Lester Thurow, an economist at MIT and chairman of the panel that selects the Lemelson-MIT prize winner. Despite the vital role inventions play in creating jobs, he says, "a lot of patents earn no money for the inventor and get no publicity."

Yet awards "don't do that much" to encourage more young people to exercise their creativity, says Burt Swerzy, a senior lecturer in the department of mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "Many students don't think they have a chance."

Through a series of grants, the two-year-old NCIIA is trying to encourage colleges to train their students to break through that barrier. The alliance, an offshoot of the Lemelson National Program, offers $500,000 in grants each year to schools to set up courses in invention, creativity, and entrepreneurship. To date, the alliance counts 43 institutions as members, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to research behemoths such as the University of California at Berkeley.

Once students come up with projects, they are eligible for NCIIA grants of up to $20,000. The project must include a business plan as well as an invention or product.

Among the individual projects the NCIIA is funding:

A database of African-American literature since 1840. A team of students from Northeastern University in Boston, Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Penn., and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is pulling the material together and building the database, which would be marketed to libraries, universities, and other research institutions.

A new rental-car scheme. Students at the University of Reno are developing a rental-car system that uses global positioning satellites, cellular phones, and credit cards to enable people to pick up and leave a car where it's most convenient, rather than having to drive to a central rental office.

A firewall-software project. Students at Evergreen State College in Washington are developing the software, designed to protect company computer networks from the darker side of the Internet. Offering the software as shareware, the students' company will customize and install the software as a business.

As for Little, he has filed for a patent on the design of his Blizzard bass guitar, whose neck and fret board twist downward as they extend from the guitar's body. The shape allows a player's wrist to maintain a more natural position as it moves down the neck.

"I just have the one prototype, but I'm in the process of getting my own shop together to build more," the jazz musician says. As for the future, he's already looking forward to the day when he extends his unique neck design to six-string guitars as well.

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