For most people, March Madness is about basketball, but for entrepreneurs who create inventions that have social impact, March brings "March Madness for the Mind," an inspirational event sponsored by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). NCIIA is a non-profit organization that supports technology innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education with the goal of creating experiential learning opportunities for students and ultimately socially beneficial businesses. I just returned from speaking at the 14th Annual Conference, which took place in San Francisco and I was impressed and inspired by the inventions I saw..
March Madness is an annual showcase of innovations from the top 10-15 E-Teams around the country. E-teams is short for "entrepreneurship teams" and these are the student teams that develop real products for real problems, often in the developing world. For example, this year’s winner was OsmoPure, a low-cost water purification device for developing countries where the water is particularly murky. The E-Team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that invented It reported that most filtration systems marketed to the poor don’t effectively remove all the contaminants typically found in the water. The device is really quite simple. The user fills a plastic bottle with dirty water, then screws on the purifier just like you’d screw on a cap, and squeezes the bottle to deliver clean, safe water. Oh, and by the way, they use plastic bottles found in rubbish piles, which makes the solution environmentally friendly as well.
Other inventions included an apnea detection system for premature infants in countries where no incubators are available and the mother keeps the baby on her chest at all time (it’s called Kangaroo Mother Care), a "Bio-Morphological Helmet" that improves on existing football helmets to protect the player against rotational impacts, and a human-powered nebulizer to tackle chronic respiratory diseases. This device doesn’t rely on an electric compressor (electricity is not available in many parts of the world).
As I’ve always said, the best products solve the simplest problems for customers who desperately need them. If you’re associated with a college or university, check out whether they’re members of NCIIA. If so, you’ll be able to apply for grants to develop your own unique solutions to problems that have an enormous social impact, and we might just see your invention at the next March Madness for the Mind (in Washington DC in 2011).