On Thursday, March 19, Caltech is hosting the fourth annual conference of the National Academy of Inventors. The NAI is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2010 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to encourage inventors and also enhance the visibility and understanding of the value of academic technology and innovation.
Its annual conference will bring hundreds of NAI members—inventors, researchers, scientists, engineers, and scholars from more than 200 institutions around the country—to Caltech. While here, they will share big ideas, discuss opportunities for future innovations, and also celebrate the newest class of NAI fellows. According to the NAI, election to fellow status is a "high professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society." The newest class of 170 fellows includes four Caltech professors.
The conference is "a very exciting opportunity for Caltech," says Caltech vice provost Morteza Gharib (PhD '83), the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering, and an NAI charter fellow. "Having an organization that brings some of our greatest minds together to look at the problems we are facing and support them in finding solutions is a noble cause, and we at Caltech are proud to be supporters of that."
Advancing innovation and the transfer of new technologies and ideas to society and industry is both a personal and professional passion for Gharib. The holder of nearly 100 patents, he leads a research group at Caltech that studies examples from the natural world—fins, wings, blood vessels, embryonic structures, and entire organisms—to gain inspiration for inventions that have practical uses in power generation, drug delivery, dentistry, and more. As vice provost, he also oversees Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships. OTT plays an instrumental role in helping Caltech's researchers commercially realize their ideas, making sure that their work is protected, patented, and licensed along the way. As of the close of fiscal year 2014, Caltech managed more than 1,700 active U.S. patents. Since the office was established in 1995, its staff has helped launch more than 150 start-up companies.
To learn more about what it means to be an inventor, we recently chatted with Gharib and two of Caltech's newest NAI fellows—Frances Arnold and Carver Mead (BS '56, MS '57, PhD '60).
Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, and director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center, pioneered methods of "directed evolution" to engineer new proteins in the lab. The method is now widely used to create catalysts for industrial processes, including the production of fuels and chemicals from renewable resources.
Mead, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus, has significantly advanced the technology of integrated circuits by developing a method called very-large-scale integration (VSLI) that allows engineers to combine thousands of transistors onto a single microchip, thus exponentially expanding computer processing power.
What does it mean to be an inventor?
Arnold: It means I get to play—with ideas—and create new things that solve problems.
Gharib: An inventor is someone who has the ability to summarize what had not been before into something that has a new form and is novel.
Inventing is not a sudden process either; you don't just come up with an invention. It comes from where you have been, all the influences you have received from your education, your community, and the environment that you are in—from whether you have been challenged or excited by problems.
Mead: I have never thought of myself as an inventor! I always thought of myself as a guy who figures things out and then it just turned out that every once in a while something that I "figured out" would be important. Some of those things turned into inventions. I am just a creative person. I'm someone who likes to solve problems.
How does the invention process relate to the scientific process?
Arnold: Many scientists pursue the answer to a question: "How does this work?" Inventors often pursue an answer to a problem: "How can I get this to work?"
Gharib: It's not the same path. Remember that engineers basically invented locomotives, and it wasn't until half a century later that we actually understood the laws of thermodynamics and why this works.
The scientific process is systematic. It relies on certain logical steps that you take—from defining the problem, testing what works, eliminating problems—and that pushes you to be able to be in a position to discover. But in inventing, you see the solutions without knowing or needing to understand why and pursue that.
Mead: For me, it's all the same. I have the same approach for all of my work—it's all just about figuring things out.
How has Caltech supported you as an inventor?
Arnold: Caltech has provided me with great students and with the financial support to pursue new ideas, and then not placed the traditional academic constraints on what we can pursue.
Gharib: Our inventors see an environment that is conducive to inventing. Caltech supports them to get their idea translated from the lab into something that is useful, something that is protected, and something that will have a societal impact.
The best example I have of that is that I didn't own a single patent before I came to Caltech—even though I was in academia for 10 years before coming here. It wasn't that I didn't have ideas, it was just that I didn't have a motivation for pursuing those ideas. When I came here, I saw that you can really take your ideas and make them into something for industry, for society, for faculty, and so on, to benefit from.
Mead: I think the best thing Caltech did for me is leave me alone, because I could pursue the things that I felt strongly about. It's always taken a very long time for me to move after having the first inkling of some direction or idea that I am drawn to. I might work for five years on something before I can fully explain to people why I am working on it.
I think Caltech is very special in that way; it doesn't interfere with the creative process.
What invention of yours are you most proud of? Why?
Arnold: I am lucky to have been the first to show how evolution can be used to construct a whole slew of new and useful catalysts. This is a fundamental process that can be used to solve so many important problems. It has been picked up and used by hundreds of academic and industrial labs, all over the world, for everything from making better laundry detergents to producing fuels from renewable resources.
Gharib: Seventy-thousand people have a shunt in their eyes that I developed, and that is helping them avoid having to deal with issues of glaucoma. In addition to that, a 3-D imaging device that I originally developed for naval underwater surveillance is now being used for making dental crowns.
It is a good feeling when you see one of your patents have societal impact.
Mead: My work in the area of very-large-scale integration—figuring out how transistors could scale up and how you could build them better—has affected the world in a profound way, and I am pleased to be a part of that. You can think of it as inventing a method, a way through, but not as a tangible invention of the usual sort.
In regards to more traditional "inventions," there are a couple of other things that have gone out into the world and made a difference. The first was the Schottky-gate field-effect transistor, which I created over Thanksgiving in 1965. It is in the transmitters of all cell phones. The second was an advancement that a graduate student of mine led. He came up with a way of making semiconductor charge-coupled devices (CCDs) work more efficiently, which enabled them to be used in the imaging world. CCDs are still the imaging sensor that is used in astronomical instruments.
Of course, you never know when you are doing something whether it will really be accepted and if people will move on it. So when it happens—when people take something that you do seriously—it's kind of surprising.