Inventors Don’t Receive The Respect They Deserve. That’s Changing

Lonnie Johnson, NASA engineer and inventor of the best-selling water toy the Super Soaker, sits with his prototype and his patent. [Getty Images]
Article by Madeleine Key for Forbes

A curiosity of the innovation ecosystem is that while inventors are celebrated for their uniquely important contributions, they’re also underrepresented. Inventors are rarely speakers at conferences about intellectual property and technology. They do not hold leadership positions at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A lone inventor sits on the committee tasked with reviewing the agency’s operations and making recommendations to the Director. Search Google for inventors, and you will notice that nearly all of the images are from the past.

The lack of widespread attention paid to contemporary inventors has produced interesting consequences—namely, a lack of inventors. It’s difficult to envision yourself doing something that you have little awareness of, nor context for. There is no degree program you can obtain that proves you’re an inventor. You have to be willing to give yourself that title. In my experience, most people are reluctant to do that. Even professionals—people who use their creativity to solve problems, file patent applications, and design new products for a living—struggle to call themselves an inventor.

This is partly because the concept itself isn’t relatable. When you think of an inventor, who comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably think of American legends like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, or Nikola Tesla. When contemporary inventors compare themselves to these larger-than-life figures, they feel their accomplishments fall short—way short. They don’t perceive that they’ve earned the right to call themselves an inventor. This is very unfortunate.

Because inventors possess so many of the same qualities that leaders do, we need people to readily embrace their inventiveness. Inventors view the world through a can-do lens. They’re empathetic, curious, visionary, and prone to action.

To be fair, organizations like the National Inventors Hall of Fame have been shining the light on the impact of inventors for decades. Some companies have too: Intel has honored one of its employees as “Inventor of the Year” since at least 2019. The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador program—which honored contemporary inventors and gave them a platform to share about their work—is a notable exception.

Broadly speaking, though, modern-day inventors are not particularly well-known.

What Makes Someone An Inventor?

Inventors are proud when the USPTO issues them a patent. They should be: The patenting process is an investment. Typically, working with a registered patent practitioner to get a utility patent issued—in which the parameters of what you own are defined by negotiating with your patent examiner—is expensive and time-consuming. But invention cannot be measured by patenting alone, because filing intellectual property on an invention isn’t required. Plenty of inventions go unpatented.

Making it easier for people to identify as inventors (before and whether or not) they get a patent is a complex challenge. Contemporary inventors often go by other names, including engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, innovator, and designer. (While Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, and Elon Musk are named inventors on patents, they’re much better known for being businessmen.) There’s also the fact that secrecy is part of inventing. If you share your invention publicly before filing intellectual property, you could lose your rights to obtain a patent. Because inventors fear having their inventions stolen, they’re often wary of discussing their work with others.

There are some less than positive connotations with the word, too. The image of an eccentric scientist toiling away in obscurity, like Doc Brown in the Back to the Future franchise, doesn’t connote respect. For years, Forbes contributor Stephen Key encouraged inventors to refer to themselves professionally as product developers because of how inventors are portrayed in popular culture.

One way to make it easier for people to see themselves as inventors is to make visible and celebrate the inventors among us right now, who exist in every imaginable setting. Progress is being made in this regard. Last month, USA Today named inventor Dasia Taylor as its Woman of the Year from Iowa. Taylor is the founder and CEO of VariegateHealth, a medical device company. Recently, Cisco launched a social media campaign featuring women to showcase how the company is cultivating the next generation of inventors. (It, along with 50 other companies, is a signee of the U.S. Intellectual Property Alliance’s Diversity Pledge.)

The organization leading the way in honoring and celebrating the importance of inventors is without a doubt the National Academy of Inventors, the non-profit founded by University of South Florida neuroscientist Paul Sanberg in 2010. At the USF, Sanberg is a leader, entrepreneur, and inventor. He believes universities should be assessed based on how they impact society at large and change the world in addition to typical metrics—which requires prioritizing invention.

How The National Academy Of Inventors Shines The Light On Inventors

Some of our greatest inventions emerge from the work taking place at universities. In academia, however, success is generally tied with publishing papers, not patenting and commercializing inventions. Knowing how to identify what’s patentable, file an invention disclosure, and work with a patent attorney isn’t part of the training that academics receive. There’s also the lingering judgement that commercialization is a form of selling out that makes you less of a “real” academic.

Unless the leadership of a university places an emphasis on translating research into economic development—which necessitates working with industry, starting companies, and obtaining intellectual property—invention really isn’t part of their core mission, explained Dr. Sanberg in a Zoom interview. He founded the NAI in part to change that. He believes it’s critical that academic scientists (especially young ones) learn about intellectual property, understand the patenting process, and are rewarded for participating in innovation to take their science to the next level. In other words, that scientists view themselves as and are celebrated for being inventors.

“It’s like everything else: You do better science when you know a lot more, including what innovation is, who the companies in your field are, and what they’re doing. For example, if you’re an engineer, what’s manufacturing like in the community? How can you enhance that?” he explained.

His efforts to shine the light on inventors been successful. Today, the NAI is a prestigious organization that includes 4,600 members and is affiliated with more than 300 academic institutions around the world. Becoming an NAI fellow is the highest recognition that an academic inventor can receive. At its annual gathering, new fellows are rockstars.

To provide a forum for exploring the relationship between academics and invention, the NAI publishes the journal of Technology & Innovation four times a year. In collaboration with the Intellectual Property Owners Association, it publishes an annual list of the Top 100 universities obtaining U.S. patents. All of these efforts, which treat inventors with the respect they deserve, help us understand who contemporary inventors are and the importance of their work on an ongoing basis. Predictably, NAI member organizations have followed suit in recognizing inventors on their campuses. After recently becoming an NAI member, for example, Tufts University held an event honoring inventors on its campus.

The Next Generation Of Inventors

Among the innovation ecosystem, there is a lot of energy directed towards raising awareness of intellectual property. But devoid of its human origins, intellectual property just isn’t that interesting. People don’t need to be made aware of intellectual property; they need to be convinced it’s actually for them. The best way of making this happen is with storytelling that centers the individual creator—the more imaginative, the better. When people understand who contemporary inventors are and what motivates them, they will apply these insights to their own lives.

The good news is, there are encouraging trends among the next generation. Invention education programs, which are growing nationwide, are making it easier for young people to understand themselves as inventors and envision leading an inventive life. Who we think of when we hear the word inventor is changing too. There are teenage inventors doing remarkable work who are highly visible as leaders, including Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree Gitanjali Rao, Neha Shukla, and Samaira Mehta. Since TIME named Rao as its first “Kid of the Year” in 2020, the inventor has used her platform to teach innovation workshops to more than 74,000 students across 44 countries.

This is a step in the right direction. It’s impossible to overstate the value of invention. Inventors are heroes whose names we should know, but don’t. To get more people to participate in the innovation ecosystem, the stories of contemporary inventors, in all their glory, nuance, and failure, must be told.