Local contest to award $30,000 for innovation

By Svjetlana Stojanovic

Aspiring graduate and undergraduate inventors at the University will have the opportunity to win a $30,000 prize this week.

Lemelson–Illinois, the University’s chapter of the Lemelson Foundation, an inventors organization, is holding its annual innovation contest Monday to Friday.

The basis for judging is to find the most innovative student on campus, said Rhiannon Clifton, assistant director of the Technology Entrepreneur Center.

She said they have high expectations this year because of the number of good innovations in the past.

“If (students) think they’re innovative, I encourage them to enter,” Clifton added. “The only way to guarantee you don’t win is if you don’t enter.”

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    She said Lemelson-Illinois is hoping to receive more applicants this year. The average number of entries the organization receives falls between 20 and 35, she said.

    “We’ve tried to make it fairly easy to apply,” Clifton said. “We know there are plenty of innovative students on campus, and we want to get to them.”

    Most applicants are part of the College of Engineering, but finalists have ranged in majors from dance to industrial design to chemistry, she said.

    “We hope to have more people from across campus apply,” Clifton said. “Any graduate or undergraduate is applicable.”

    She said one misconception about the contest is that the innovation has to be technical. Judges come from all different departments on campus, and being too technical will make it harder for them to understand the innovation, she added.

    “I was shocked when I found out only one of my judges had any technical background,” said Robert Shepherd, graduate student and 2009 finalist. “I actually think it was a good thing the judges had a diverse background.”

    Judging is done with two panels of faculty. The first panel looks at the written entries and determines the finalists while the second panel interviews the finalists, she said. The process ends with the winner announcement March 3, 2010.

    Ben Blaiszik, graduate student and 2009 finalist, said one disappointment about the contest is that only one individual out of many highly qualified finalists will get a prize.

    “I suspect that if the goal of this competition is truly to encourage innovation, that more substantive prizes for finalists be given as they are at other schools with the Lemelson competition,” he added.

    Blaiszik’s entry concerned the development of cost–effective and non–toxic self–healing materials. He said the materials would be used as bridge coatings and naval ships to prevent corrosion damage.

    He said he expected a competitive year for the contest.

    “I suspect, especially among the finalists, that the competition will be extremely close and that the ideas will be as high quality as ever,” Blaiszik added.