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The Inventor's Mentor

December 2010

Do you Believe in Santa?

Santa Claus. The magical being that brings us a bag-full of free goodies. Does he exist? I would say so. The closest we can get to the idea of Santa is nature itself, a beautiful blue world where air is free to breathe and sunlight provides free warmth and energy. Many, many, many years ago, we also enjoyed free food and free water. Now we have to work for it. We need to grow our vegetables and raise our cattle. We must transport our water from distant locations.


The clock will not turn back. The road to Eden is closed. We now inhabit a crowded world that is becoming increasingly polluted and depleted of resources, a world threatened by the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases. We are now realizing that the Earth is a limited closed system and for long term sustainability, all our consumption needs to be recycled. As a species, humanity needs to grow up. No more Santa, baby!


The best method of conveying this idea to our capital-driven society is through the notion of Natural Capital, the view that some parts of nature yield value. For example, an equatorial forest that recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen is worth trillions of dollars. Imagine how much it would cost to build the machinery to perform this task! Some metals such as Indium used in computer and cell phone displays may be in short supply in the short future. Our only alternative for these metals, then, will be to mine other planets. Imagine the cost of such an enterprise. This idea of natural capital leads us to view Earth's valuable resources just like any other assets and to use them in a sustainable fashion.


Human beings faced difficulties before and survived because of their intelligence. About 200,000 years ago humanity almost met its demise because of an ice age. The number of humans then plummeted to just a few thousands. Our ancestors were probably saved by a lone inventor who invented fire to keep them warm - or a method for keeping fire going – maybe by smoking a pipe filled with aromatic or mood enhancing herbs – or a new fur clothing design - we’ll never know.


Fire has been a wildly successful invention. We use it to heat our homes and cook our foods, to refine our metals and produce our chemicals. We use it to propel our cars and it took us to the Moon. However, its excessive use is now leading us toward the opposite catastrophic extreme – global warming – with potential dire consequences – and again inventors are needed to extricate us from this self imposed doom. Sustainability and recycling are the answers to the problems facing us, our children and their children.


How do you, the inventor, play a crucial part in repairing the world? If you have any idea related to energy saving, or sustainability, or natural resource management, Uncle Sam wants you. The Department of Energy and the National Science foundation (among other government agencies) have been issuing solicitation funded by recovery money and aimed at solving these crucial problems.


Solving an environmental problem will be of value not only to you but to everyone on Earth. If you want to apply for government funding go to the SBIR DOE site or to the SBIR NSF site. All US government SBIR solicitations can be found at the small business innovation research site. Remember, the government funding cycle can be quite lengthy. The time between submission of a proposal and funding can be many months. Start now!


Inventing is just like magic. It is the creation of something out of nothing, the generation of value where there was none before. Let’s make a special effort to solve one of the environmental problems. Examples of green technology include the solar cell, energy saving fluorescent light bulbs, drip irrigation systems, electric cars, wind mills, hydroelectric power, low-flush toilets, etc. Several charitable foundations are ready to pour money into your project if you can show that you can save the planet.


If we combine all the creative talent available, 2011 can be a year of innovation in green technology. This is the best gift we can leave to the next generation. And perhaps there will be reasons to believe in Santa after all.




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