Phil Weilerstein's National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance was established in the '90s to support innovation among students.


The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) was established in 1995 to support innovation and provide learning opportunities and create actual businesses to provide social benefit. We have been following a few of their events for the past few years, including the BMEidea and BMEStart competitions, and their Open Minds exhibition, a chance for their most promising teams to show off early prototypes. We had a chance to speak with Phil Weilerstein, NCIIA Director, to ask him a bit about the NCIIA and the young inventors they are grooming.

Why and how was the NCIIA started?

The NCIIA was started 16 years ago with support from the Lemelson Foundation to stimulate invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship in college and universities through experiential learning and a focus on applying the creative potential of students to address the needs of society.

We have been following your competitions for a few years now. Which products are you most proud of? Have any gone on to make it to market?

The real competitions each year are the BMEidea and BMEStart competitions, both of which have yielded some impressive winners. There have been quite a few commercial successes including a novel method for delivering oral vaccines that removes the need for refrigeration and a low cost ventilator for use in low-resource or epidemic situations. I am probably most proud of the projects that have realized a vision for addressing the needs of people who have limited access to advanced health care by creating affordable and appropriate solutions, such as the KMC Apne Apert, a breathing monitor for neonates that can be used in traditional kangaroo carrier care. Developed for use in South Africa initially it has the potential to improve health outcomes worldwide.

Some other examples of BMEidea winners:

  • Rotavirus Vaccination via Oral Thin Film Delivery, Johns Hopkins University
  • OneBreath, Stanford University
  • KMC ApneAlert, Northwestern University

All of the winners are listed here.

And of course, there's often overlap between BMEidea winners and Open Minds participants. It's wonderful for us to see our teams progress through the NCIIA development pipeline and take advantage of the many opportunities we provide for support on both financial and mentoring levels.

How do you select the participants? Is there a lot of competition?

The OPEN MINDS event is the culmination of a competitive multistage process through which we select the top 10 to 12 student innovators (or teams of innovators) in the nation, out of an average of 50 or more applicants. We work, both in internal review and with volunteers who are experts in the field, to choose from among the most promising of our current grantees, based on their creativity and the commercial viability of their projects. Winners for the BMEidea competition are selected by a more conventional process, pulling from an external panel of judges from industry and academia with many years of product development experience and deep medical, technical, and market knowledge. Judges read and score the submissions against a rigorous set of criteria that take into account the level of innovation, the market potential, the regulatory pathway, and the quality of the presentation submitted. Through discussion a group of finalists is selected and ranked.

How do you feel about the current educational opportunities available for aspiring young innovators. Are there any changes you'd like to see?

To learn to innovate there is a need for more experiential learning opportunities. Current educational practice does not provide enough of these opportunities. I would like to see more programs that enable young people to pursue opportunity based on scientific and technological innovations. BMEidea and BMEstart are two competitions that provide targets and a competitive environment to stimulate excellence.

Where do you see the NCIIA going from here? Tell us about some of the events you have coming up. Any new competitions we can look forward to?

We are looking to scale our work and engage engineering and science educators in addressing the needs of society through educating the next generation of inventors and innovators. In the coming week we are launching the Epicenter, an initiative to transform engineering education, and holding our annual meeting, OPEN, for 300 educational innovators in San Francisco.

This post also appears on medGadget, an Atlantic partner site.

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