Behold the power of invention

26 Lemelson-MIT prize winners account for 3,871 patents

THE EFFECTS of the pandemic experienced this past year remind us that scientific and technological progress is essential to our greater public good.  Both are now front and center in American public discourse as they influence the lives of nearly all Americans. Advances in testing, treatment, and vaccines have once again illustrated the meaningful – often lifesaving – impact invention and innovation can have on our lives.

The pandemic-related work at hand is of great importance, but so is the need for additional investments in science and engineering.  But more than simply funding, there is an immediate need for actions that will further the nation’s growth in productivity and inclusive prosperity, a measure of the extent to which all sectors of our population are empowered to contribute to the economy and share in its benefits.

In a new study, “Competing in the New Economy: The New Age of Innovation,” the Council on Competitiveness calls the need for such change “urgent,” “strategic” and “pivotal,” and seeks to boost US innovation tenfold. From boards and corporate leadership to research and innovation teams, a growing body of evidence compels us to acknowledge that the diversity of those at the table increases performance and innovation.  Special attention must be given to increasing both the number and diversity of Americans engaged in innovation, so that our economic recovery and progress are not only swift but also inclusive.

The power of inclusion is illustrated by the backgrounds and inspirations of the winners of the Lemelson-MIT Prize over 25 years, as documented in a new study by the RAND Corporation, “Measuring the Value of Invention.” The 26 prize winners reflect the evolving face of invention, coming from a widening variety of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. They produced a wide range of ground-breaking inventions, from everyday items like the computer mouse and the LED, to research-based innovations in gene therapy and biotechnology.

The study cites the wide-ranging economic and scientific impacts of Lemelson inventors:

  • The 26 Lemelson-MIT Prize winners were affiliated with more than 180 companies and institutions, founding more than 140 of them to develop or commercialize new inventions. Those that remain in operation and report financial data collectively employ approximately 40,000 people and generated total annual revenues exceeding $54 billion as of 2019.
  • The 26 winners hold 3,871 patents for original inventions, for an average of 149 per inventor. The numbers for the individual inventors ranged from 12 to 831. Those patents were cited in over 41,000 subsequent patent filings.
  • The winners’ patents span a wide range of technological areas, from electronics to medicine.
  • The 26 winners published over 3,700 articles in 682 different journals,  accumulating over 334,000 citations (as of March 2020).

If only 26 people can have such significant impact, imagine the potential impact of a system that is designed to widen inclusion in innovation and designed to harness innovation to focus on real world challenges. Extrapolating the Lemelson winners to 1,000 new inventors would mean almost 150,000 new patents in an even wider range of technologies and the creation of more than 1.5 million more jobs. But beyond such indicators, what can we do to ensure that many other inventors across a greater range of backgrounds are fully engaged in an inclusive innovation economy?  How can we foster greater diversity for greater impact?

Some officials and lawmakers are already advancing this prospect.

The National Council on Expanding American Innovation, established by the US Patent and Trademark Office at the request of a bipartisan group of legislators, is developing steps for expanding American innovation. Another bipartisan group of federal lawmakers is supporting the IDEA Act, which calls for the collection of gender data when patents are filed as a first step in improving diversity among aspiring inventors. A third group is supporting the Endless Frontiers Act and its call for greater investments in science and technology.

Meet the Author

Michael Cima

David H. Koch professor of engineering, MIT
Meet the Author

Fiona Murray

Associate dean for innovation and inclusion, Sloan School of Management, MIT
Entering office with a pledge to emphasize science and innovation, the Biden administration can build on these efforts. With careful attention and broad vision, new policies and programs can bridge current disparities among those contributing to and benefitting from the new age of innovation. Building on the response to the pandemic and the results noted in the RAND study, promoting greater diversity and opportunity can exponentially broaden the impact of future invention for the greater good.

Michael Cima is David H. Koch professor of engineering at MIT, where he is also associate dean of innovation for the school of engineering, co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, and faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. Fiona Murray is the associate dean for innovation and inclusion at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the William Porter professor of entrepreneurship, and co-director of MIT’s Innovation Initiative.