College Student Inventors Find Innovation To Be Win-win

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A student of industrial design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the first undergraduate to share the grand prize for the Collegiate Inventors Competition in its 19-year history.

Stephen Diebold, 21, accepted a total of $27,000 in prize money in late 2009 for inventing an improved pointing stick for those who have quadriplegia or who otherwise cannot use their arms. Called the Drop Point, this innovative design is a pointer mounted on a cup that is hung around the user’s neck. A simple movement of the chin enables the person to “shrug” the pointer into a position so it can be used for typing or using a phone.

Typically, those with quadriplegia used a pointer mounted on their head, or they gripped one in their teeth – methods that would require assistance from others to use – and in the case of the pointer held in the mouth, precluding conversation while using the pointer. Stephen Diebold, who hopes his invention will provide a better solution, has since been awarded a patent pending for the Drop Point.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Collegiate Inventors Competition, co-sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Abbott Fund. Begun in 1990, the program now has more than 60 colleges and universities that participate. Individual students or teams of up to four student inventors work closely with faculty advisors to develop and refine their inventions before the mid-year entry deadline.

The rigors of the Collegiate Inventors Competition encourages participants to develop skills and acquire expertise in all facets of the invention business: in addition to refining their inventions and creating prototypes or working models, student inventors are also expected to search the USPTO database for existing patents of inventions that might be similar to their own, termed “prior art.” They must then write a report for the judges on what distinguishes their invention from any inventions uncovered by their rudimentary searches.

The Collegiate Inventors Competition is one of many programs developed by the USPTO to nurture and inspire innovation in children and young adults. The agency oversees and partially funds the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, which operates children’s camps and after-school clubs in cooperation with a network of corporate sponsors.