April 26, 2004
Expanding Reach of Patent Prizes
By TERESA RIORDAN
AT a reception last week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, featuring a
performance by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Lemelson-M.I.T. program awarded two of the biggest prizes open to inventors.
The first, with a $500,000 purse attached, went to Nick Holonyak Jr. for inventing the first practical red light-emitting diode. The
other, worth $100,000, went to Edith Flanigen for her pioneering work with zeolite Y, a molecular sieve used widely in petroleum refinement.
In its 10th anniversary, the Lemelson Foundation, which endowed the invention prizes, is poised to take a new direction with its
philanthropy, a direction that seems surprising given that Jerome Lemelson, whose millions made the foundation possible, was an ardent supporter of the
By 2006, the foundation aims to devote half of its estimated annual $13 million budget on financing what the foundation calls
"sustainable invention" in the developing world, a very different tack from rewarding American ingenuity with lucrative cash prizes and lush
ceremonies. In addition, the foundation has already begun to make relatively small investments in innovators and entrepreneurs in places like Costa
Rica, Indonesia and Kenya.
To a large extent, this shift reflects the interests of Jerome Lemelson's sons, Rob and Eric, who along with their wives, and their
mother, Dorothy, oversee the foundation. Jerome Lemelson died in 1997.
Rob Lemelson, an anthropologist who was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia, has a special interest in that country. "Indonesia is
the largest Muslim country in the world," he said, adding that it was important for Indonesians "to realize that Americans and American
foundations are interested in addressing key issues that are relevant to their lives like water purification and poverty."
Dorothy Lemelson sees this new direction as an expansion of her husband's original vision. "All his life, Jerry wanted to
celebrate American invention. He felt it was what made this country strong," Mrs. Lemelson said. "Now it's time to turn to the rest of the
world and see what we can do for them."
Ashok Gadgil, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, serves as an adviser to the foundation. "We are talking about
the bottom one-third of humanity on the planet, who earn less than $2 a day," he said. "A video cellphone is not going to help them. They lack
access to safe water and suffer the effects of smoke inhalation from dirty biomass cook stoves. Forget about a G.P.S.-navigated automobile; these are
people who don't even have a bicycle."
The Lemelson brothers started thinking about sustainable innovation about three years ago. They hired an executive director to begin
developing a program two years ago, and they expect the program to be in full gear by 2006.
One invention that the foundation has subsidized is a pump produced by ApproTec, a nongovernmental agency in Kenya. The treadle pump,
which is operated with pedals - something like a Stairmaster - allows a farmer to sharply increase the water he can use to irrigate crops. The Lemelson
grant went toward creating a drill to pierce the water table. The foundation gave ApproTec $100,000.
ApproTec's distribution of the treadle pump and other projects have been credited with raising the gross domestic product of Kenya by
$35 million, or 0.35 percent, a notion that was described as "astounding" by Eric Lemelson, an environmental lawyer by training who operates
an organic vineyard in Oregon.
"Raising living standards to levels where people can think about things beyond keeping themselves and their children alive from
day to day is a critical part of how to solve the sustainable development puzzle," Mr. Lemelson said.
Calestous Juma, professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government suggested that the foundation needed to focus on rewarding
true innovations rather than financing programs already in existence. The ApproTec pump, for example, was already part of a successful program when the
Lemelson Foundation gave it a $100,000 grant last year.
"That is a big distinction," Professor Juma said. "It's not that clear what they are supporting so far." Offering
prizes in the developing world similar to the Lemelson-M.I.T. award, he said, would be "a very significant incentive."
"If they go the route of simply funding projects, they are competing with much bigger foundations like the Rockefeller, MacArthur,
and Ford foundations," he said. "I think the strength of Lemelson would be to continue their tradition of rewarding innovators. No one else is
doing this and if they do so, they will serve as an inspiration for other foundations to do similar things."
The foundation is no longer stressing patents over the act of invention since many developing countries have no patent system at all
or a poorly enforced one. The ideas the foundation finances "don't have to be patentable," Eric Lemelson said. "They just have to improve
lives on a basic level." But the foundation plans to fund efforts to strengthen intellectual property institutions.
During his lifetime, Jerome Lemelson received more $1 billion in royalties for licenses to his bar-code and machine vision patents,
and gave away more than $100 million. While he was revered by independent inventors as the epitome of an American success story, Jerome Lemelson was
criticized by corporate lawyers who characterized him as more of a shrewd manipulator of the patent system than as an inspired inventor.
The recipient of 562 patents before his death at the age of 74 in 1997, Mr. Lemelson was second only to Thomas Edison, who was awarded
1,093 patents. Mr. Lemelson has continued to receive patents posthumously, his 590th last month.
By most accounts, Jerome Lemelson's sons have been proven to be thoughtful stewards of their father's many millions. Indeed, they say
they encouraged their father to pursue philanthropy.
"He was so busy inventing 24 hours a day," Rob Lemelson said. "We said, 'you have great resources, you have great
responsibility.' This couldn't have been done without my father's achievement. Eric and I just gave him a little push."
Would he have agreed with the new direction the foundation is taking? "Although the impetus for our international program lies
primarily with my brother and me," Eric Lemelson said, "I think Jerry would be fully supportive were he alive today."