Following a year that demonstrated the importance and practical applications of scientific advancement and invention, the Lemelson-MIT Program announced seven winners of its annual 2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize on April 26, World Intellectual Property Day. The program awarded a total of $90,000 to four graduate students and three undergraduate teams from across the country. The majority of winners have filed for patents, while others have been awarded full or provisional patents. Their inventions range from an innovative approach to plastic pollution in Uganda to self-driving wheelchair technology.
“We are thrilled with and inspired by the quality of inventions this year,” says Michael J. Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program and associate dean of innovation at the MIT School of Engineering. “This group of students has performed tremendous work amidst difficult circumstances, often working remotely, knowing their research is too important to slow down. Science and technology have been at the forefront of conversation over the past year, and this diverse group of students is well-positioned to lead us toward great advances for years to come,” Cima says.
Supported by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by the School of Engineering, the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize recognizes and provides catalyst funding to young inventors who have dedicated themselves to providing scalable solutions to real-world problems around the globe. This year’s winners have invented solutions that address pregnancy-related complications, market losses in the agricultural industry, obstacles impeding smooth patient recoveries, and other pressing problems in society. Recipients were selected from a diverse and highly competitive pool of hundreds of applicants from colleges and universities across the United States.
“Congratulations to this year’s winners for their remarkable achievements and dedication to solving some of the biggest challenges facing society today,” says Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation. “It’s particularly exciting to see this year’s cohort of graduate winners is all women, given the fact that a large gender disparity exists in patenting. More inventors are needed from communities historically underrepresented in invention, including women, if we are going to effectively solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winners were selected based on the overall inventiveness of their work, the invention’s potential for scalable commercialization or adoption, and youth mentorship experience. They are:
The “Cure it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve health care.
• Nicole Black of Harvard University, $15,000 Graduate Winner
The eardrum often becomes damaged through traumatic head injuries, blast injuries, chronic ear infections, and other incidents, affecting millions of people worldwide every year. Current eardrum graft materials are tissues taken from other parts of the body. These current grafts intend to repair damage, yet do not integrate well with the eardrum and surrounding tissue, resulting in poor healing and hearing outcomes that often require further surgery. Using novel biodegradable materials and 3D printing techniques, Black invented a tunable, biomimetic eardrum graft called PhonoGraft. Because PhonoGraft is able to retain the circular and radial structure of the eardrum, its sound-induced motion is similar to that of original eardrum tissue. Additionally, PhonoGraft acts as a kind of scaffolding that bridges the hole and becomes part of the native tissue, allowing the eardrum to essentially heal itself and restore hearing more effectively.
• Mira Moufarrej of Stanford University, $15,000 Graduate Winner
Pregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia and preterm delivery pose significant risks to both fetal and maternal health and are often difficult to detect in time for effective medical intervention. Moufarrej developed three novel liquid biopsy tests that monitor prenatal health and identify high-risk pregnancies by more accurately predicting due date, risk of preeclampsia, and likelihood of preterm delivery, making assessments possible well in advance of the mother becoming symptomatic. Following preclinical validation, these affordable, simple, and reliable maternal blood tests may change the standard of care for preeclampsia and preterm delivery — risks that no other test can currently predict early enough to allow for meaningful clinical intervention.
• Innerva: Bruce Enzmann, Michael Lan, and Anson Zhou of Johns Hopkins University, $10,000 Undergraduate Team Winner
Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), a procedure to connect severed nerves to smaller motor nerves, is an increasingly popular method for treating peripheral nerve injuries, as it partially guides nerve regeneration and makes it possible for amputees to more effectively operate prosthetic devices. About 30 percent of TMR patients, however, experience pain due to nerve tumors, or neuromas, that result from the inherent differences in size between the newly connected nerves. Innerva’s invention is a nerve conduit that creates an interface between the different sized nerves connected during TMR, modulating nerve regeneration and preventing the formation of neuromas.
The “Eat it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve food/water and agriculture.
• Hilary Johnson of MIT, $15,000 Graduate Winner
Centrifugal pumps are integral drivers in many fluid systems, such as clean water distribution, wastewater treatment, crop irrigation, oil and gas production, and pumped hydro energy storage. Requiring significant energy to operate, collectively these pumps consume 6 percent of annual U.S. electricity. Hilary’s invention is a variable volute pump, a new category of centrifugal pumps that mechanically adapts the hydraulic chamber to adjust to fluctuating system demand. Variable volute pumps show the potential to significantly improve efficiency and operating range across applications by adjusting the spiral fluid passages to match the flow rate.
• Grain Weevil: Benjamin Johnson and Zane Zents of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, $10,000 Undergraduate Team Winner
Large grain bins are used to store surplus grain supplies and allow farmers to hold their yield for higher prices. Managing grain condition and extraction require farmers to physically enter the grain bin, which is difficult and dangerous, often trapping and even killing farmers. A lack of proper management and extraction systems cause a 30 percent loss in cereal grain value worldwide. The Grain Weevil is a grain extraction and bin management robot that scurries across the top of the grain within a bin, smoothing out clumps so that the grain can be properly aerated and easily extracted from the bin. This device helps farmers safely and efficiently manage the extraction of grain from the bin, as well as maintain grain quality while in storage.
The “Move it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve transportation and mobility.
• Adventus Robotics: Maya Burhanpurkar and Seung Hwan An of Harvard University, $10,000 Undergraduate Team Winner
Power wheelchairs present formidable barriers to mobility for users unable to operate a joystick, and manual wheelchairs operated by porters within hospitals can increase the potential for disease transmission between patients and staff. To solve these issues, the Adventus team developed a hardware and software kit that can be retrofitted to power wheelchairs already on the market to convert them into Level 5 (fully autonomous) self-driving wheelchairs. Adventus’ system transcends existing assistive technologies by using artificial intelligence and fail-safe sensors for edge detection and collision prevention. In light of Covid-19, the team’s technology has the potential to be used in a variety of other applications like autonomous floor cleaning and disinfecting.
The “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve consumer devices and products.
• Paige Balcom of the University of California at Berkeley, $15,000 Graduate Winner
Takataka Plastics is a technology and systems-level solution for plastic waste in Uganda that locally recycles plastic waste and creates jobs for vulnerable youth. Paige developed small-scale, locally built, low-cost machines to transform plastic waste into saleable products such as wall tiles for buildings, personal protective equipment, and consumer goods. This technology is especially innovative for PET waste because PET plastic (water and soda bottles) currently cannot be recycled anywhere in Uganda, and exporting the waste is difficult and inaccessible to most local recyclers.
Collegiate inventors interested in applying for the 2022 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize can find more information via the Lemelson-MIT Program. The 2022 Student Prize application will open in late spring 2021.