Spirit of American Ingenuity

The first USF National Academy of Inventors conference will be held Thursday and Friday at the Embassy Suites.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 15, 2011) – Paul Sanberg has been known worldwide as a pioneer in brain injury and stem cell research for more than two decades, but in recent years he has distinguished himself in a whole new venue: the world of invention.

In 2009, Sanberg founded the University of South Florida’s Academy of Inventors and the concept quickly took off nationwide. Eager to embrace the innovation that comes from academic researchers who develop and patent new products, medicines and devices, the Academy has surged to become a place to both nurture and celebrate the inventive spirit.

The National Academy of Inventors will hold its first conference on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 16-17 at the Embassy Suites at USF. Nearly 140 attendees are expected for the event, which will feature an address from David Kappos, U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, at 11 a.m. Thursday.  On Friday, Thomas J. Fogarty, inventor of the cardiac balloon catheter and inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, will be the keynote speaker in a noon event.

The conference comes at a time when the U.S. is increasingly calling for a return to the spirit of invention that made its economy the envy of the world and USF – its students, researchers and faculty – are right in the game. Among the conference attendees will be 38 USF students eager to start their careers as inventors, too.

Conference sessions will feature in-depth and interdisciplinary presentations on such important topics in innovation and patenting as: The America Invents Act, new technologies, innovation funding, patents and public policy, environmental and ethical impact of technologies, innovation and job creation and changing the academic culture to encourage inventing and patenting. The full program can be seen here.

The event is a milestone for Sanberg, who explained in a recent conversation with USF News how USF and other universities are learning to embrace their inventive spirit.

Q: How did the idea for a National Academy of Inventors come about?

A: It really has been going on for a few years.  We were trying to identify who were the inventor faculty at USF? Who were the faculty who were doing research and taking that next step and translating their research to innovations and inventions for society? Because it is not normally part of the academic culture. It’s not part of promotion and tenure. Even though we have a Patents & Licensing office and we encourage this, it’s not part of the typical training of an academic. The focus has been on research grants and research publishing, but what’s interesting is, even though it’s not really in the mainstream of academics, there was a cadre of students, faculty and staff who actually did want to invent things. When I asked people who had been issued a U.S. patent to come to a lunch, over 100 people showed up. It surprised me – all those people involved in patenting. All the sudden, when you get them all together, it is an incredible interdisciplinary group of people who think outside the box. As we look for ways to enhance universities, to get universities more involved with the economy, with society, and with trying to make the university less of an ‘Ivory Tower,’ it’s this group of individuals who can really play a role, because they are already doing things that they think are important for society. This is a great way to get people involved across campus,

Q: How did you take it to a national level? It seem as though you’ve unleashed this interest in inventing that had been dormant?

A: We just had some chutzpah and said “let’s get this out there” and see who bites. With a small budget and a few good people, we have promoted the Academy primarily by word of mouth and we have worked to get other groups to come and meet with us. One of the main reasons we started the Academy was to honor the inventors. Because they were kind of on the outskirts – they weren’t in the mainstream of academics – we felt it was important for them to be honored and to make it clear that what they are doing is important. And therefore, hopefully the universities will find it important and make changes around promotion and tenure. And it has worked – the faculty, students and staff who invent wear pins, they are honored, they get certificates, they become members of the Academy and they get involved. They almost become rock stars on campus. They are the inventors.  That’s been a change in the culture, to the point where, at this university, we became one of the top universities in the world in the number of U.S. patents last year.

Q:  Do you see the interest in invention changing on a national level?

A: Clearly it’s taking off. This country is in economic pain and while we may not be the manufacturing center of the world, we have been the intellectual power. Our intellectual property has been extremely important in bringing new ideas and new ways of doing things to the economy and to society. The fact that we are pushing to recognize this intellectual power of our faculty is not coincidental. President Obama has called for increased innovation and asked what universities could do to help. The nice thing is that universities can also train people to be innovators and entrepreneurs.

Q:  It seems to be an innovator, you can’t be afraid to fail. You have to be resilient – which seems to be another quality we’ve seemed to have lost and now we’re trying to regain.

A:  By doing something outside the norm, you’re already taking a risk and you’re setting yourself up for potential failure. But that’s OK; many times it’s the ones who accept that failure and move forward from it who eventually become quite successful. Most patents don’t make money; a few make an enormous amount of money. However, many of the patents that don’t make any money are the foundation for others to invent products that will.  

Q: USF has really developed this reputation of being the university that has amassed this group of people who are doing really creative things. You’ve been here a long time, it must be fun to see that global recognition?

A:  It’s really nice to see. One of the reasons we started the Academy was to find out who else was doing this stuff. Was I an oddity at the university? By seeing who else was involved with inventions, I realized I wasn’t the only one. There were a significant number of people doing these things and now we could make it even larger. We currently have over 230 members in our local chapter – that’s a lot of people. 

It’s great for the students. There are a lot of students who get involved in the process – and not just for the potential money. It’s important for them to realize they can be part of the invention process and when they leave, they know:  “I can do this!”

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.