LauraASchoppeLaura Schoppe, president of Fuentek, an award-winning intellectual property and technology management consulting firm. The North Carolina-based company helps large clients (sorry, kitchen-gadget inventors need not apply) find new markets and applications for existing and new technologies. Schoppe is concerned that society is not doing enough to foster science, technology, engineering and math. So earlier this year, Schoppe served as a regional judge for FIRST — the international robotics competition founded by famed inventor Dean Kamen that encourages youth to pursue STEM-related careers.

ID: How did you fall into Dean Kamen’s FIRST orbit?

LS: I told him from a business perspective that the focus of our philanthropic activities – I’m Hispanic and I’m a female – that I’d really like to see women and minorities get into the science and engineering fields. He said, ‘You have to do FIRST.’ They were starting the North Carolina event, and it was the first one they ever did in this state, which was pretty amazing considering we have Research Triangle Park. He got me on the steering committee to set it up.

It was one of the best experiences I ever had. It’s extremely well run and the kids are just amazing. I was energized at the end of the day instead of exhausted. It was a competition, but the kids were helping each other. It’s really well thought out on how to create a competitive environment, but make them want to help each other. It was really wonderful to watch. We could all learn from these kids.

ID: Talk about your work with SunDanzer Refrigeration Inc. and their solar-powered, portable refrigerator.

LS: NASA Johnson Space Center developed the technology about a decade ago. They were developing it for cooling systems on lunar stations. The innovators also saw an opportunity to use it for Earth-bound purposes. So they started making some prototypes and working with other organizations. At that time, one of the inventors spun off and created his own business just to do this.

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He had a short-term license to make these prototypes. They’ve been in testing for almost a decade. And they have performed very well. SunDanzer has gone through a variety of iterations. Now they have a viable business plan and have licensed the technology, and this time it’s primarily for medical vaccines and medicines in Third World locations.

The basic concept is it takes solar energy, converts it to thermal energy and then stores it in phase-change materials, which right now is ice. So you don’t need a battery and you don’t need electricity.

ID: So what’s the promise of the SunDanzer?

LS: The promise is there are two billion people in the world without electricity, and more than that without refrigeration. So the promise is food storage as well as medical storage. Lack of medicine leads to millions of children dying every year.

ID: What’s the state of U.S. innovation? Are we in a state of descent, stasis or ascendency?

LS: Not ascendency. We are not populating our future with innovators who have the technical competency to create the next great thing. We have some great minds here. But we don’t have the numbers we should have. And that scares the hell out of me.

And that’s why we’re so focused on this STEM thing. We have to start getting our youth excited and interested about science and technology so that we can continue to innovate in the future.

I feel very strongly about this. I’m very concerned.

ID: What’s your parting advice for inventors?

LS: That they think before they leap. Investigate what’s already out there and leverage the existing technologies. That doesn’t mean you’re not innovating. You still have a tremendous amount of innovation that needs to go into reapplying something. But why waste resources reinventing something that already exists and may already be better or a different way of solving the problem?