Invention Factory® 2022 Winners Selected
POSTED ON: September 6, 2022
Invention Factory has returned to The Cooper Union! The intensive six-week summer program ran every year since 2013, but was forced to take a two-year pause due to COVID-19. Co-founders Eric Lima, professor of mechanical engineering, and Alan Wolf, retired professor of physics and a registered patent attorney, were delighted to resume the program again at its home base. They also resumed operations in India, at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Gandhinagar, and expanded the program to IIT Bombay. Between the three programs, 30 new student inventions were launched this summer.
“The Invention Factory is a life-changing program that more students should take part in. I saw how every single one of my peers were positively affected by the program and wish more Cooper students had the same opportunity," shares Levi Sheridan, who was part of the 2022 top-winning team.
This year's program structure was identical to previous years—twenty Cooper engineering students, working in ten teams of two, spent their first week of the program conceiving an invention. Each team’s proposed invention was “upvoted” or “downvoted” by other Invention Factory students and by professors Lima and Wolf. Teams were able to propose an invention in any arena, subject only to the upvoting process, which is focused on inventions that meet an important need, are safe and ethical (there is a prohibition of human and animal subject testing), and have a sensible budget (nominally $2,000 per team). Eventually all ten teams gain approval for their invention proposals, and each begin a cycle of research, design, prototyping, pitching, and patenting.
"Invention Factory was one of the best experiences my partner and I had at Cooper," says Nicole Shamayev, who shared second prize this year for PreFent, an invention that would help people test for the drug fentanyl. "We got the chance to intensely work on something that we felt was so important to society that we would have never had the chance to make in our classes. We had a blast exploring our school’s resources and becoming close friends with the other inventors over the six weeks."
After a week of conceptualizing inventions, students embark on an almost around-the-clock period of refining their work and discovering new challenges in the process. For example, a prototype students may believe is “almost finished” suddenly stops working; or worse, they discover a patent or product that is so close to their invention that it might render theirs unpatentable. These setbacks interfere with the process of writing their patent applications (“provisional patent applications” give student inventors a measure of protection for one year) until their design is finalized and hopefully proved through their prototype. Their invention also faces a weekly gauntlet of guest evaluators who during Q&A sessions may identify critical problems (or potential improvements) with the invention. Lima and Wolf counsel guest evaluators to be “nice, but not too nice” and as a result, some teams make the difficult decision to completely change their invention as late as midway through the six-week program.
On August 19 more than a dozen judges from diverse backgrounds that include business, medicine, and patent law watched the teams’ final presentations and studied their prototypes. Five of the teams were called back for Q&A and the judges selected a “Best Invention” ($5,000 prize) and two inventions that tied for “Second Best Invention” ($3,000 prizes to each team). In selecting winners, judges are advised to focus on identifying and meeting a need, but also to consider manufacturability, marketability, and other practical factors. Judges are discouraged from considering prototype esthetics and entrepreneurship questions, as these are outside the scope of Invention Factory.
First prize went to OptiDrop by Levi Sheridan and Kevin Luo. Optidrop is a device that helps people apply eyedrops to their eyes more easily. The device dispenses one drop of medication as the user opens their eyelids using their fingertips (an intuitive motion most employ when inserting contact lenses). The drop lands in the user’s eye before they can blink. Optidrop attaches to most eyedrop bottles, is ambidextrous, has a mechanical advantage that makes squeezing the bottle easier, and is manufacture-ready. No part of Optidrop ever comes in contact with the user’s face.
One of the second prize winners was PreFent by Nicole Shamayev and David Madrigal, a device designed to help people test for fentanyl – a deadly substance that is often present in illicit drugs. The device repackages over-the-counter Fentanyl test strips to make them more portable and more convenient to use. Nicole and David designed their disposable device to be inexpensive while also being robust enough to be stored in a handbag or wallet. PreFent containing everything needed for a rapid test, including an internal water-filled pouch that is pierced during testing.
The other second prize winner was Nepipen by Joshua Ashvil and Seyeon Park. Nepipen is an epinephrine auto injector designed to be smaller and safer than an EpiPen, the existing standard for emergency intervention for those entering anaphylactic shock. Unlike the EpiPen, their device is bi-directional—meaning that a needle will inject medicine into the body regardless of which end of the device the user pushes against the skin. Critically, the bidirectionality of Nepipen allows for a potentially lifesaving second dose of medicine (frequently required), accessible to users by simply inverting the device.
Alan Wolf, now mostly retired to a ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, explained the unique pleasure of running Invention Factory, as compared to his 35 years of traditional classroom teaching: "While there is inherently a competitive element to Invention Factory, which from day one announces that there will be a selection of 'Best Inventions,' a more supportive and encouraging environment between these 20 students cannot be imagined. So much learning, so much fun, and no grades!” (The last not quite true, as Wolf gave a patent law quiz close to the end of the program. Kevin Luo and Kyle Deolall tied with nearly perfect scores and received Amazon gift certificates.) Wolf was in residence at Cooper for the first quarter of the program, the critical “Conception” stage of inventing, and he worked with students remotely until August 19, known within the program as “Judgment Day.”
Lima notes that the key to the extraordinary level of engagement in the extracurricular program is the result of how the program taps into the intrinsic drive of students to create. “Once students experience the thrill of creating something valuable that they own; it generates incredible energy. Early in the program, some teams take breaks, falter, sputter forward, but towards the end of the program there is such momentum that no one even thinks of taking a break. Working and playing blur into a flow state.”
Funding for Invention Factory came from the Edward Durbin and Joan Morris Innovation Fund for the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, a gift of Ed Durbin EE'48.