Robert Lemelson

Robert Lemelson is co-vice president and secretary of The Lemelson Foundation, founded by his father, the late prolific inventor and patent holder Jerome Lemelson. Rob is an anthropologist who received his master’s from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from the Department of Anthropology, UCLA. He has conducted research for the World Health Organization and is the director of Elemental Productions, a documentary film production company.

The Lemelson Foundation believes invention is the core driver of prosperity. It supports The Lemelson-MIT Program, The Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), among others. In the past 15 years, NCIIA has funded 367 innovative product development projects that have resulted in 75 new businesses, 400 new jobs, and 45 patents – all made possible with the backing of the Lemelson Foundation.

ID: How do you think your father would rate the nation in terms of innovation – are we as a society moving the needle forward, backward or is it stuck in neutral?

RL: Well, I think he’d be pretty pleased. One of his main concerns was seeing innovation stuck in neutral, at best. If you look through your cultural lens with a wide angle, he saw more youth interested in entertainment, sports and things other than science and engineering. He saw the rise of East Asia as a competitor and a threat.

Since the early ‘90s, I think we certainly made a continued push at the foundation to emphasize the role of inventors to the nation’s economy. I think if my dad were alive – and I think of this quite frequently as the son of a father who was a 24/7 inventor and constantly talking about inventing – he’d be so pleased with the amount and ubiquity of technology. Everyone is involved in complex technology these days, for good and ill. But things are headed in the right direction.

ID: What are the biggest challenges facing domestic innovation development?

RL: I heard a congressman from a certain party decrying how we can’t possibly spend money on R&D now. But we all know R&D is essential for innovation. And a lot of that money has to come from the federal government. I think President Obama’s plan is … like a playbook from our foundation. (Obama’s innovation initiative calls for an increase in federal funding for basic research and development, developing an “IT ecosystem” supported by widely available Internet access, promoting community innovation and government support for advance vehicle technologies and other markets of “exceptional national importance.”)

We need to continue to push to get young people involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and spend money at the university level.

ID: Talk about the Lemelson Foundation’s commitment to sustainability. What does that look like?

RL: I don’t think sustainability was around as a word 10 years ago. In the early years of the foundation, sustainability for us was picking a relatively small number of partners – the Smithsonian, MIT and smaller ones like the African American Male Achievers Network (A-MAN) – and funding programs that had the ability to generate some of their own funding. But we’ve been funding A-MAN for years. It helps kids here in Los Angeles get involved in science experiments and off the streets. Hal Walker, a real visionary in the field of laser technology who helped with our country’s space program, helped found A-MAN. He’s rescued a generation of kids in Inglewood. That’s a good sustainability story.

ID: I recall trying to get one IP professional involved in a sponsorship initiative for National Inventors Month that included the Lemelson Foundation. This guy declined, saying your dad was a patent troll and didn’t want to be associated with anything Lemelson. What’s up with the acrimony?

RL: Excuse me, but (expletive) him. No doubt my dad made a lot of enemies. But there was a well-funded, extremely negative PR campaign against him from Mitsubishi, Ford and a lot of others. It’s been well documented.

He had more than 600 patents, but his patents weren’t worthless. After years of litigation that cost Ford $40 million, Ford licensed patents from him, which shows how valuable and valid they really were.

You’d walk into court and my dad would have his attorney – a total Samurai, by the way, who brooked no fools – and on the other side half the room would be all these attorneys from corporations. Jerry’s fight was a real David vs. Goliath battle. He was taking on the largest industries in the world and beating them. They had a real problem with that.

ID: What’s your favorite invention?

RL: HyperSonic Sound technology (developed by inventor Woody Norris at American Technology Corp.). It has the ability to channel sound like a laser and target it over a three- or four-foot area at a distance. You can hear sound when you’re in the sound beam, but move a few steps either way, and you can’t hear the sound. It’s really cool.

Editor’s note: This interview appears in the March 2011 print edition.

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