The Eureka Club
Vermont inventors showcase their bright ideas — and how they made them reality
The Green Mountain State has long been fertile ground, not just for crops but for ideas. On July 31, 1790, the United States Patent Office issued its first-ever patent to a Vermonter, Samuel Hopkins, who invented a process for making potash. Since then, Vermont has given birth to scores of other important, life-changing and just plain fun inventions, including the electric motor (Thomas Davenport), the cast-iron plow and platform scale (Thaddeus Fairbanks), and the snowboard (Jake Burton Carpenter).
However, as any patent holder can tell you — and Vermont is home to more per capita than any other state — eureka moments are a dime a dozen. The really hard work lies in taking a concept from inspiration to reality and then, for the fortunate few, turning a prototype into a marketable product.
Inventing can be a lonely business, but, these days, Vermonters no longer have to go it alone. InventVermont, a nonprofit coalition committed to promoting the spirit of invention, has helped scores of fellow inventors conceive, develop, patent and promote their creations. This week, nearly two dozen of them will display their inventions at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center for an adult-oriented event called “That’s Brilliant!”
John Cohn is an IBM fellow and local inventor who holds more than 50 patents of his own. Cohn, who also cochairs the science innovation committee at ECHO, says the December 8 event is meant to “celebrate inventiveness and the innovative spirit in Vermont,” bringing together inventors, artists, patent attorneys, financiers and marketing professionals.
The 21-plus gathering is designed to be hands on, creative, educational and fun, he says, with live demonstrations, displays and even door prizes. Cohn will be there to show off a useful tool for inventors and other creative types: a 3-D laser cutter, which can take a computer illustration and, within five minutes, convert it into a three-dimensional object you can hold in your hand. Also called a “3-D printer,” the tool can cut just about any material but metal, including wood, plastic and fabric. The University of Vermont’s College of Engineering is entertaining a proposal to purchase one for a “FabLab” that will serve as an incubator of sorts for local inventors.
The inventions on display this week run the gamut, from the ultra low tech (the “Diva Dangler,” a jewelry display and storage device); to the mechanical (the drive train used in a Segway Human Transporter); to the super high tech (a system of microchips that enables medical researchers to study cellular-level reactions in potential cancer treatments).
Who are some of Vermont’s other inventors? Meet three whose creations will be discussed, demonstrated or both at the ECHO event.
Back in the 1990s, Kathy Dever, an interior designer from Stowe, was frustrated by her inability to use a tape measure to hang artwork and drapery hardware. As she often worked alone, Dever found it awkward to measure and mark distances accurately with a pencil or chalk while standing on a ladder or in a dark room.
Unable to find a product that could ease the task, Dever invented one herself: a 16-foot self-marking tape measure. The concept is simple. The tape measure housing contains an ink stamp and pad that can be pressed against virtually any surface to create an easily erasable mark that’s accurate every time. After hundreds of marks, the disposable inkpad can be replaced.
Dever says she was initially discouraged by the numerous rejections from companies she approached about developing the device. She eventually started her own company and patented her self-marking tape measure, in large part thanks to the help she received from fellow inventors at InventVermont.
“I learned everything I needed to know and met people who were able to support my questions,” she says.
Today, Dever’s company, I-Mark Tools, has other patents on similar self-marking devices, including one issued in 2007 for electronic measuring instruments, such as a self-marking laser tape measure and a self-marking stud finder.
Dever’s products aren’t in hardware stores yet, and she hasn’t given up her day job. Still, she remains optimistic that the concept will take off.
“Are we profitable? No,” she admits with a laugh. “We’re just starting the process, but it’s encouraging because people who see it like it.”
Saving lives with light
Since 2004, Kenneth Puzey, founder and president of QuantaSpec of Burlington, has been developing infrared technology that can detect everything from roadside explosives to smuggled uranium to infections that kill 200,000 hospital patients annually and cost the American health care system billions of dollars.
In recent years, Puzey’s R&D has focused on one of the world’s most persistent and deadly parasitic diseases: malaria. His patented invention uses a technology called infrared spectroscopy to differentiate between various strains of the malaria parasite. By hitting a thin blood smear on a slide with infrared light, Puzey’s instrument can measure the wavelengths that parasites in the blood absorb or reflect, which are unique and telltale like fingerprints.
“It’s a way of sensing chemistry without using other chemicals,” Puzey says. “We’re using light to probe the chemistry of the cell. And we can detect a single parasite in a blood sample. There’s no other clinical technology in the world that can do that.”
QuantaSpec’s technology is valuable to clinicians in the field, Puzey continues, because it allows them to use a computer to identify exactly which strain of malaria a patient has contracted and then prescribe the most effective drug to treat it. Puzey’s research is largely funded by the Department of Defense and may eventually help protect American troops against malaria, which incapacitates more soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan than do combat injuries.
The invention is vital, Puzey adds, because in many parts of the developing world, more than 50 percent of malaria cases derive from drug-resistant strains. Some will kill patients within 24 hours, which doesn’t leave doctors much time to decide which drugs to use.
Ultimately, Puzey hopes to get his patented instruments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so they can be marketed and used by practitioners in the field, including those who lack the expertise and training to make such complex diagnoses through a microscope.
“That’s an ambitious goal,” he admits, “but it’s good to have ambitious goals.”
Peter Bingham is a pediatric neurologist at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, but his latest invention was designed to benefit patients with respiratory problems, not neurological ones. Bingham has developed a video game that’s operated by breath rather than by a joystick, keyboard, mouse or gaming console.
The idea, he explains, is to help patients — mostly children and teens — learn how to recognize the onset of an asthma attack.
“Certain breathing exercises are good for people with different kinds of chronic diseases,” Bingham explains, “so this is a way to make that a little more fun.”
The as-yet-unnamed game — it’s gone by various monikers, including the “Bronchobat” and the “Turblo” — is still a work in progress. Thus far, it hasn’t been “dressed out” with all the high-tech graphics of modern video games, but its functionality is in place.
The object of the game, Bingham explains, is for a player (i.e., patient) to track a sine wave whose peaks and valleys change continuously across the screen. Using quicker, shallower breaths or longer, deeper ones, players must keep the cursor on the ever-moving line. That’s done by breathing in and out of a controller called a spirometer, which measures the volume of breaths. By increasing their awareness of breathing changes, patients can learn to identify the increasing resistance they experience as their airway starts to constrict.
“Some people believe that if you breathe in a certain way, you can forestall or prevent an asthma attack,” Bingham adds. “But no one has been able to sort that out yet. So the game then becomes a research tool to figure that out, too.”
This isn’t Bingham’s first invention. He’s developed a pacifier designed to help premature infants better recognize the scent of their mother’s breast milk, which facilitates breast-feeding. He says InventVermont was “a nice home base for inventors in the area” that was very helpful in connecting him with useful resources, such as patent attorneys.
Ultimately, Bingham says the best part of the invention process is working with young people to develop a medical device that actually improves their medical outcomes.
“Kids sometimes feel that the things they have to do for their health are a drag, like going to the doctor or taking their medicine,” he says. But when they’re helping him with a creation such as the video game, “there’s a feeling that this is a fun thing that they can do for their health ... It’s like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.”
The InventVermont organizers hope the ECHO event will remind grown-ups that technology can be fun, too, whether it’s saving lives or just saving time.
ECHO After Dark: “That’s Brilliant!” Thursday, December 8, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. $12; $10 for ECHO members. 21+. Info/reservations: 877-324-6386. echovermont.org