On Sunday, January 17, I spoke at the kick off event for the 5th annual Invent It challenge at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This is the first year that the challenge is oriented around a topic – health – and I was thrilled to be part of it as we roll out the Invent Health initiative here at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation challenges kids (ages 5 to 21) to come up with a creative solution to a real-world problem. Just as we teach in the HHS Ignite Accelerator, the Invent It challenge instructs kids to think about a problem, sketch a solution, then build and test a prototype. Then kids’ innate curiosity and enthusiasm take over, yielding ideas like a way to scrape your windshield from inside your car or, more seriously, a better tourniquet.
Arthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center, and Tricia Edwards, the Center’s Head of Education, interviewed me on stage about the role that innovation plays at HHS and health and human services more generally. In the audience were two teams of young inventors as well as kids and families visiting the Museum that day.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
AD: Healthcare is incredibly complex and it is daunting to think about inventing a new medicine or medical device. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private companies spend billions of dollars in research. What is missing that makes an invention challenge like this worthwhile?
SF: At HHS, we recognize that great ideas can come from unexpected sources. We try to open as many doors and windows into our work so that people outside the lab, outside our offices, can see in and help us. One way we do that is through our HHS Competes program. We have run over 100 prize competitions under the America COMPETES Act, enabling us to get the word out and engage the public; offer our colleagues a more nimble, less costly way to acquire new tools and ideas; stimulate innovation in new or stagnant markets.
AD: What public health inventions or innovations are needed for communities in the U.S. and for those in developing countries?
SF: Our public health challenges range from the personal to the global. On an individual level, we need to find ways to help kids and families choose healthy foods to eat and to get enough sleep – two building blocks for good health. On a global level, we are looking for ideas related to clean air and water, which affects everyone, around the world, but especially in low-resource countries.
AD: What role can young people play in inventing solutions to these problems? Can you share an example of young people who are inventing in the health area?
SF: Yes! In 2014, HHS held a prize competition focused on how first responders in a natural disaster can figure out who they need to rescue first, based on the location of electricity-dependent medical equipment like a ventilator. When the power goes out, the clock is ticking. We often don’t know if the person using a ventilator was evacuated or if they are still stuck in their high-rise apartment. Before we send a firefighter up 30 flights, we’d like to know if that person and their medical equipment are still there. We figured there were creative solutions that we had not yet thought of, so the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response sponsored a prize competition. The minimum age requirement for our competitions is 18, so a 16-year-old student on Long Island entered using his father’s name – and came in third! David Li, the student, used his prize money to further develop his wireless tracking idea and wowed us all this summer by presenting an upgraded prototype. He, by the way, was inspired by his experience as a volunteer in a nursing home during Hurricane Sandy. That is exactly what we are hoping to build toward: an Innovation Nation. Young people can contribute to solving health challenges.
TE: How can kids contribute to solving problems? Kids are creative. They haven’t yet been told “that’s impossible” so they try stuff that an adult wouldn’t even dream of. That’s the kind of thinking we need in health and human services. People who ask why? And why not? We want kids from all over the world to push our thinking.
TE: What advice do you have for young inventors who want to make a difference, but maybe don’t know how?
SF: Great inventors are like great entrepreneurs. They solve their own problems. Nobody knows better than you how to solve a problem that you personally see, like how your little brother or sister just can’t seem to remember to brush their teeth every night or how your grandma or grandpa has trouble navigating a bumpy sidewalk when they try to go for a walk outside. Think about the problems that you see in your own life and start there. Ask people questions and listen to what they say, especially if it’s not what you expect or what YOU think. That’s the golden ticket to innovation.
Find out more about the Invent It challenge.