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2016 Collegiate Inventors Competition – Ideas that Could Make a Difference


A new way to treat glaucoma…a bladeless drone…adjustable prosthetics…DNA-powered diagnostics…pesticides that degrade quickly…early detection of cervical cancer…freezing cancer cells with carbon dioxide…a lightweight, easy to use fire extinguisher…

These cutting-edge inventions were developed, not by scientists in corporate environments, but by undergraduate and graduate students working in labs at colleges and universities across the country. Each year, students are invited to submit their inventions to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. On November 4, the finalists  – six graduate and five undergraduate teams – had the opportunity to showcase their work at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in Alexandria, Virginia.


Display in the USPTO’s lobby

The competition was created in 1990 by the National Inventors Hall of Fame to promote creativity and innovation in science, engineering, and technology among college and university students. Since that time, more than $1 million has been given out in awards. Members of the NIHF judged the competition, along with USPTO experts and scientists from AbbVie, a pharmaceutical company.

The event, open to the public, attracted a large crowd that included students from area high schools. Before the awards ceremony, the finalists stood before exhibits of their work, answering numerous questions and explaining in detail the mechanics of their products and how what they created might be used to improve productivity and, in many cases, save lives.


Drew Hirshfeld at podium

Drew Hirshfeld, commissioner of patents, opened the awards portion of the event, calling the students “the future and the present of innovation.” He added that he hoped they would continue as entrepreneurs, business owners, and patent holders.


Mary Dwyer from Cooper Union explains her team’s SEAL Fire Extinguishing Ball

Elizabeth Dougherty, the USPTO’s director of inventor education, outreach, and recognition, who announced the awards, described the 16 undergraduate and 12 graduate students as “thinkers who are so outside the box, they don’t even know what the box looks like.” She applauded NIHF for leading an innovation movement that recognizes these students and their achievements.


A member of the Johns Hopkins team talks about Cryoblation

The first award, the Undergraduate Bronze Medal, went to Clarisse Hu, Sarah Lee, Bailey Surtees, and Serena Thomas, from Johns Hopkins University. Their advisor: Nicholas Durr. Their invention, Cryoablation, would use carbon dioxide gas to freeze a probe that would kill tumor cells for women with breast cancer. Since using the probe requires only local anesthesia, the method would not only reduce cost, but also recovery time, making it particularly valuable to treat women in low and middle-income countries.

Dougherty took particular delight in handing out the award to a team of four women, noting that only 18 percent of patents have the names of women on them.

The Undergraduate Silver Medal, which also focused on cancer affecting women in low and middle-income countries, went to Columbia University students Jahrane Dale, Olachi Oleru, Ritish Patnaik, and Stephanie Yang. Their advisor: Katherine Reuther. The cerVIA System would use a camera and algorithm through a smartphone application to enhance the standard visual exam used to diagnose cervical cancer.


Mark Kester, Payam Pourtaheri, and Ameer Shakeel

The Undergraduate Gold Medal went to Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel from the University of Virginia, who have developed a pesticide that degrades after just a few hours, allowing crops to be safely harvested much faster. At present, regulations require a long waiting period – up to 66 days – after spraying. During that time, weather events may damage crops, leading to loss by farmers.

Both Gold Medalists thanked their advisor, Mark Kester, for his support. “Our parents were not born in the U.S.,” Pourtaheri said. “They brought us here and restarted our lives.”

The Bronze Graduate Medal went to Aaron Blanchard and Kevin Yehl from Emory University for their invention, Rolosense for DNA-Powered Diagnostics. Their advisor: Khalid Salaita. Their invention, which turns chemical energy into rolling motion, “could make advanced testing for disease and contaminants more efficient in remote areas when it’s needed most.”


Erin Keaney from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell

Three students from the University of Massachusetts Lowell  – Jonathan Perez de Alderete, Brendan Donoghue, and Erin Keaney – received the Silver Graduate Medal for developing adjustable prosthetics that can be easily customized to the wearer and even “grow” with a child over time. Their advisor: Steven Tello.


MIT’s Carl Schoellhammer

The final award, the Gold Graduate Medal went to MIT’s Carl Schoellhammer for SuonoCalm, a device for the at-home rapid administration of therapeutics. The device would help the more than 1.4 million people who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, not helped by traditional methods. SuonoCalm can deliver “a wide range of medications directly into tissue using low-frequency ultrasound.” His advisor: Robert Langer.

For more information on the Collegiate Inventors Competition, go to the website.