Invention, with a side order of altruism

By GREGORY ZELLER

While cutting-edge laboratories, university-based startups and seven-figure investments monopolize Long Island’s innovation spotlight, invention can happen anywhere.

Just ask students in the Science Research Program at Commack High School, where teacher Richard Kurtz, with a little help from Suffolk County Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club founder Brian Fried, is teaching kids they’re never too young to change the world.

The para-curricular program – enterprising students can select it in lieu of other science classes – encourages altruistic thinking, though it may ultimately prove lucrative for several student inventors. Teams from the Science Research Program showcased their inventions at the May meeting of the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club, and several generated “significant” interest from attending engineers and investors, according to Kurtz.

Kurtz and Fried dreamt up the program three years ago, after Fried addressed a Commack High science class and the school incorporated his book, “You and Your Big Ideas,” into its curriculum. The inventor’s club founder, who this week is launching an e-course for inventors at www.inventorclass.com, said he’s thrilled to help Kurtz’s students realize the importance – and power – of invention.

The Gua Sha Backpack team

The Gua Sha Backpack team

“It’s very important to plant the seed of innovation and make these kids understand they can see the world around them from a different perspective,” Fried said. “Making them aware of this at a young age is key to continuing innovation on Long Island, in this country and around the world.”

Students explore their inventive ambitions in what Kurtz described as a “fairly well-equipped lab,” stocked with “a lot of the materials they’ll need.” When necessary, the teacher added, “we improvise … if we need it, we’ll go get it, and if we have to, we’ll make it.”

Some participating students even bring their inventiveness to the region’s top R&D facilities, including Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University. Such collaborations have allowed them to pursue opportunities well beyond the typical high school experience – “the whole gamut,” according to Kurtz, “from biology and engineering to computer science and behavioral science.”

Commercialization isn’t necessarily the goal, but with several student projects stirring investor interest, the Science Research Program’s revenue potential can’t be ignored. Kurtz and his flock have already taken the first steps toward commercialization, including a visit this week to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent Resource Center at the Smithtown Public Library.

“We have to do some protection work before we do anything else,” Kurtz noted. “We’re learning that before we move on, we need to protect these products.”

One student invention already has a patent pending: An as-yet-unnamed wireless tracking system that monitors home-use medical equipment during natural disasters, invented by junior David Li. The system uses radio signals to help hospitals monitor ventilators, dialysis machines and other electrical devices without the use of the Internet, landlines or cell towers – infrastructure typically at risk during hurricanes and other extreme events.

Li shared a working prototype that “generated some real interest” among investors at the May showcase, Kurtz said, but while the 11th grader is further along in the patenting process, his invention wasn’t the most popular among potential investors.

That honor went to the Gua Sha Backpack, an invention of students Matthew Damiata, Nick Nasis and Eric Nigro, designed to reduce strain on the shoulders and back caused by super-heavy backpacks – like the ones lugged around daily by the typical high-schooler.

In their presentation, the trio cited a study they conducted themselves on the Commack campus, revealing that students carried nearly 20 percent of their own body weight in their backpacks, risking spasms, strains and long-term conditions including scoliosis. Their solution: a lightweight, foam-lined wood-and-metal frame that redistributes backpack weight “while still being compact, stylish and durable.”

“People were talking a lot about it, including engineers and some investment people,” Kurtz noted. “They got some emails afterwards from investors who wanted to know more.”

Also proving popular at the showcase was Food Friend, a mobile food-allergy detector created by Olivia Dubi, Tara McCaffrey and Amy Uthup. Citing 15 million Americans with food-related allergies, the students turned to AppInventor.org – an online app-creation tool funded in part by the National Science Foundation – to invent a mobile application that scans barcodes and warns shoppers if particular items might trigger their allergies.

Other presentations generating buzz included a prototype air-pressure sensor that works with bag-valve-mask oxygen devices commonly used by emergency responders, invented by students Will Furst and Claire Drotman, and Office Top, a contraption invented by Abinaya Anand, Melike Akoglu, Daniel Cho, Anoop Singh and Brianna Delgado to meet the needs of quadriplegic Hauppauge attorney Glenn Campbell.

A voice-activated control system manipulates the motorized device, which allows the attorney to control his workspace – including a computer and a phone – without assistance.

Although the students invented Office Top specifically for Campbell, the product is generating considerable commercial interest, according to Kurtz.

“They’re won some awards in various competitions,” the teacher noted. “They’ve caught the eye of a lot of people.”

While the projects are varied in shape and form, they all share a common theme: the betterment of others. Kurtz said he has no problem with students who want to create something with a less noble focus, but when he welcomes students into the Science Research Program, he encourages them to think about “bringing some benefit to the world.”

“I take two approaches,” he said. “One is to help a specific person or group of people. The other is to figure out what you can build that would make the world around you better. The kids who invented that backpack device saw a problem in their school and tried to solve it. Claire is a certified EMT who works on ambulances, and that’s how she came up with the mask valve.”

While the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club showcase generated some commercial interest, “we’re not necessarily looking to make money,” the teacher added. The idea is to inspire innovation itself.

“It’s great if they wind up having commercial success,” Kurtz said. “But the goal is for them to get excited about engineering.”