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National Academy of Inventor Fellows (left to right) Eleftherios “Terry” Papoutsakis, Kristi Kiick and Yushan Yan share their successes, stumbling blocks and suggestions on what it takes to innovate.
National Academy of Inventor Fellows (left to right) Eleftherios “Terry” Papoutsakis, Kristi Kiick and Yushan Yan share their successes, stumbling blocks and suggestions on what it takes to innovate.

Inspiring innovation

Photo illustration by David Barczak

UD National Academy of Inventors Fellows discuss the creative spirit, lessons learned

According to Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1937 for his study of vitamin c and cell respiration, “Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

Most of the time, innovators do not know if their ideas will pan out. A lot of the time they don’t. When failure occurs, inventors step back, reconsider and regroup, then keep pursuing their ideas, incorporating lessons learned along the way in order to pivot or start anew.

As we celebrate National Innovation Day on Tuesday, Feb. 16, UDaily asked several University of Delaware researchers who are fellows of the National Academy of Inventors to share their successes, stumbling blocks and suggestions on what it takes to innovate, invent and inspire new solutions to challenges facing society and the world.

Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis

Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis is the Unidel Eugene Du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He was selected for NAI fellow status in December 2020 for translational biotechnology contributions that have profoundly impacted sustainable manufacturing and human health. One technology that Papoutsakis said has proven particularly useful and successful is his team’s development of a method to engineer microparticles that deliver gene-regulating material to hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells that live deep in our bone marrow, where they direct the formation of blood cells. The technology could be useful in treatment for inherited blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, or to improve personalized medicine. The discovery, he said, was completely unexpected, but it is currently generating a lot of interest from companies.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness?  

Papoutsakis: As a child, I did not know what inventors do but I was amazed by the ability of airplanes to fly, the discovery of plastics, fertilizers and pesticides (my dad had an orchard and could tell how important they were) and the concept of the vaccine. My generation first experienced the benefits of the polio vaccine and vaccines for other devastating diseases. That is why I decided to become a chemical engineer. I did not know at the time how broad the field was, but I had a cousin-in-law who was forward-looking, and he explained to me the potential of the field and its breadth.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Papoutsakis: Two things come to mind. First, I wish I had taken a course in patent law and patent writing. I am still learning as I go along; however, I can’t help but think about what might have been different if I’d had training. I missed several opportunities to protect my research work.

Second, I wish I understood better how to “sell” (commercialize) my inventions and be good at it. It takes the right personality and a thick skin to swallow without pain the rejections (and I lack both), plus a lot of time to keep pushing.

Q: Are the best innovators also subject-matter experts? Or do great innovations just as often — or more often — flow from an idea from someone who does not know how to bring that idea to life, but gets connected with someone who does?

Papoutsakis: Not necessarily, intuition and imagination are more important, I think. In terms of which is better, subject-matter expertise or connections, I think the latter is as potent an avenue as the subject-matter expert who has intuition and imagination, or the right people to work with.

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Papoutsakis: We have done well with the “easy” things that make a lot of money like social media and the Googles and the Amazons of the world. We need these things, and the folks that developed them are geniuses. But we still need to solve really big problems in energy, the environment, global warming, sustainable manufacturing and transportation. Then there is the problem of affordable and adaptable health care. The pandemic is just a reminder and an advance notice as to what humanity might be up against as we move forward.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Papoutsakis: Patents are a key part of invention. I think it is important to engage both undergrads and graduate students in all aspects of the patent process early on. From patent applications to writing provisional patents and, later, work with lawyers to file the utility patents or even just to read them. It is so different from reading scientific papers. Having this knowledge and background early in one’s academic or industrial career would be beneficial for an individual and for future inventors working with that individual to keep the spark alive.

Q: Is there anything you would tell your younger inventor self if you could?

Papoutsakis: At the risk of repeating myself, I would tell my younger self to take a course in patent writing and entrepreneurship, to work with a “master” in my field and to think outside of the box. The best ideas are not necessarily based on “expensive science.”

Kristi Kiick

Kristi Kiick, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2019. Her research involves developing biomaterials to advance medicine, from healing wounds faster and improving chemotherapies, to treating heart and musculoskeletal diseases. Kiick’s proudest moment of invention occurred as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology when she discovered that the natural protein-synthesis machinery of E. coli can be tuned to use novel chemical groups not normally used by nature in protein synthesis. Specific enzymes that normally control what amino acids are included in proteins can simply be produced at higher levels in the bacterial cell. This change alone can permit an enormous range of chemically reactive proteins to be produced. Other scientists have built on Kiick’s original approach to create applications that now help scientists learn about processes inside of cells in order to better understand development, disease and drug treatments.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness? 

Kiick: My exposure to and interest in invention occurred while I was a research scientist at Kimberly Clark Corporation. I was inspired by many of my co-workers, who each approached innovation and invention differently. Some people saw research articles and applied those findings to technical advances we were trying to make in our laboratories, and others found inspiration from the fundamental principles of the world around them. It was inspiring and a little bit intimidating for me to watch how these colleagues generated and implemented ideas. It definitely changed how I looked at science and its application in solving technical challenges.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Kiick: Honestly, the biggest stumbling block for me was trusting my scientific intuition as a young scientist. It took me a long time to understand that my ideas could be novel and that what might appear as an experimental failure could actually be a new discovery. The thoughtful and supportive mentoring by my graduate adviser was pivotal in my making this transition.

Q: Are the best innovators also subject-matter experts? Or do great innovations just as often — or more often — flow from an idea from someone who does not know how to bring that idea to life, but gets connected with someone who does?

Kiick: The best innovations don’t necessarily come from subject matter experts. Having a fresh look at a question or an idea can spark innovation. The implementation of many technical innovations is often best accomplished by a diverse team, where deep technical knowledge can be applied in a new way because someone has thought to look at the idea differently. 

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Kiick: I think there are still critical innovations to be made in how we apply massive amounts of data to create new technologies and social systems that allow us to be good stewards of our planet, our communities and ourselves.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Kiick: As Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Q: Is there anything you would tell your younger inventor self if you could?

Kiick: I just laughed out loud. I would say surround yourself with supportive people who are trying to make a positive difference. Say ‘yes, and’ and not ‘no, but.’ Travel more. Enjoy the journey. 

Yushan Yan

Yushan Yan, Henry B. du Pont Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2018. He is a co-inventor on more than 20 patents. Among his team’s most recent inventions is a new class of ionically conducting polymers that have the potential to drastically reduce the cost of green hydrogen and fuel cells and to help deeply decarbonize all sectors of our economy. In 2019, Yan launched a startup called W7energy, now known as Versogen, alongside UD students and alumni to commercialize this new class of polymers and membranes. He’s proud to report that the company has grown rapidly over the last two years.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness?

Yan: When I was a kid, I did not understand the concept of “invention,” per se, but I did like tinkering with my hands. For example, I enjoyed making my own primitive telescope or modifying my kerosene lamp to make it burn cleaner. Years later I would learn that what I did to the lamp was to turn the diffusion flame (where the fuel and oxidizer are separate prior to the reaction) into a premixed flame (where the fuel and oxidizer are mixed) like those found in a Bunsen burner.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Yan: Coming up with an invention that is useful is not difficult, but developing a good sense of what kind of invention can be commercialized and have a measurable societal impact took some time.

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Yan: As a society we still need many critical innovations in all kinds of fields. For myself, being able to reduce the cost of hydrogen and fuel cells to help deeply decarbonize our economy is a very high priority.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Yan: I think it is important to instill curiosity into our children and to convince them that everyone has the potential to change what is possible.

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