About William Reynolds

William is the Administrative Program Specialist for the Lemelson Center.

Starting the Day Right: Coffee Innovations

While I can’t remember the first great cup of coffee that I ever had, I can certainly remember the last.  It was brewed here in our offices earlier this week with freshly ground coffee beans, the perfect amount of cream & sugar, and a strong caffeine kick that cleared my early morning brain fog.

Latte.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

After reading an article recently about the history of coffee making, I realize that I owe the pleasure of that enjoyable cup of coffee to a series of coffee related innovations, some that date back to the 15th century.  There’s the first coffee shop, which opened in 1475 in modern day Turkey; the percolator which was invented in 1818 by a metal craftsman; and the first paper coffee filter, invented by Melitta Benz around 1908.

But what I find even more fascinating are the very eccentric and somewhat quirky coffee related inventions that are popping up all over the world.  These include the coffee condiment stick, which contains pre-measured cream and sugar; the ‘Coffee Car’, a British vehicle that runs on discarded coffee grounds; and my personal favorite, the Handpresso, a portable espresso machine.

Coffee beans.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m sure that I also speak for my fellow coffee addicts when I say that I look forward to innovation that continues to improve both the delivery and quality of our beloved ‘liquid gold’.

Football Helmet Technology

A leather helmet worn by Gerald Ford while playing football for Michigan in the 1930's. From Wikimedia Commons.

As the parent of a high school football player who suffered a minor concussion two years ago and a huge football fan, it’s both reassuring and fascinating to observe the advancements being made in helmet technology. Most of us have heard recent stories about how concussions have caused significant health problems for retired professional football players. Most recently, repetitive concussions and concussion related injuries have been blamed for the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. Seau and Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, with Duerson leaving a note behind indicating that he wanted his brain donated for the study of football related brain injuries. The Seau family recently announced that they would allow researchers to examine the brain of Junior Seau for the same reason. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the plight of two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon is outlined in heart wrenching detail. A 2007 brain scan revealed that McMahon was experiencing early-onset dementia as a result of at least four documented concussions throughout his career, including the head first body slam that ended his season in 1986 (the photo of this injury in the article is stomach turning). As a result, McMahon has been experiencing both short-term and long-term memory loss, and he’s now experiencing acute, intense headaches that drop him to his knees in a cold sweat.

But while it’s great to know that improvements are being made in helmet safety, can anything be done to separate the game from its gladiator mentality? Most football fans know that the greatest respect is given to players who propel themselves all over the field with reckless abandon. Any talk of changing this aspect of football culture is viewed as outright blasphemy. Many have found solace in the fact that coaches all over the country are focusing on tackling techniques that prevent helmet-to-helmet injuries.  Is technique an important part of the overall problem? According to Tim Gray, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, an average defensive back’s speed combined with his mass can produce around 1600 pounds of force during a tackle. With that amount of force, bad technique can mean not only potential brain injuries, but possibly life-threatening overloads to the spine. The 2012 Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reports that helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking techniques were the direct cause of 36 deaths and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. The total elimination of fatalities wasn’t reported until 1990. In response to these deaths in the 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was founded. Clearly, there should be a continued focus on safe techniques in addition to advancements in helmet technology.

In terms of measuring helmets for their ability to reduce concussion, that task has been undertaken by Virginia Tech since 2011. Virginia Tech researchers have produced a ranking for helmets utilizing the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system. This ranking involves performing 120 impacts on helmets, and data collected from impacts experienced by players. Most disturbing about the 2011 ratings was that one of the lowest-rated helmets was being used by most players in the NFL. Now, the lowest three rated helmets from the 2011 rankings are off the market.

One example of emerging helmet technology is a helmet designed by Troy Fodemski, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, CO. Fodemski, an electrical engineer, has designed a response system in helmets that would release dozens of tiny airbags sequentially to cushion blows to the head. Fodemski’s start-up company, Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC, has patented its technology that it says will measure hits, compare data, and administer pressure to the tiny airbags in response to the movement of the brain upon impact. Then there’s a product called the Thermocrown, from a startup company called Thermopraxis and renowned helmet producer Schutt Sports. The Thermocrown is a fitted device inside the helmet that, after a hard hit, receives an injection of cooling gas to lower the head’s temperature to minimize damage. It is essentially an ice pack that can be initiated by training staff in seconds.

Obviously, there would be a number of obstacles leading to implementation and use of these products on the football field, but the concepts are rather exciting. Let’s hope that with continued analysis of helmets on the market and the advancements of new, innovative helmet technology, we can see fewer instances of permanent and lingering brain and spinal injuries.

Bionic Repair

Via Wikimedia Commons user Debivort.

As I continue to recover from my recent anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) surgery, I can’t help but feel a bit like the “Six Million Dollar Man.” I can almost hear the bionic sound effect that was the staple of Lee Major’s TV character, Steve Austin (I’m leaking the proximity of my age here). The procedure is typically performed to treat nerve root and spinal cord compression as a result of spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, or, as in my case, a herniated disc. The surgeon accesses the spine with a small incision in the crease of the neck and after moving neck muscles and the esophagus aside, the bedeviled disc is removed, replaced, and the vertebrae stabilized with a titanium plate and four screws. It is the titanium plate that makes me feel somewhat bionic and the use of titanium specifically that makes the surgery so interesting to me. For several decades, titanium has been recognized as an element that can bond with bone and integrate with it. It is the use of titanium in the surgery that allows the fusion of the reconstructed vertebrae to remain secure.

The hope and expectation of surgeons who perform this procedure is that the patient will end up with a much more stable spinal structure than before. In the opening sequence of the “Six Million Dollar Man,” a voice describes the star, “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” How fitting, right?

When my surgeon initially described the entire procedure and mentioned the plate, I remember wondering how I would ever get through a TSA checkpoint without being searched extensively and repeatedly. My wife, who works for the Department of Homeland Security and was seated next to me, immediately began shaking her head in pity. But my doctor quickly assured me that the plate was much too small to cause me any such issues.

As I recall that this is the surgery that corrected WWE super star John Cena’s herniated disc and corrected quarterback Peyton Manning’s collapsed vertebrae, I can only hope that if Cena could return to wrestling and Manning could return to playing professional football, a little old man like me can eventually return to yard work with the kids. Wish me the best folks.

Creative Financing

In light of economic challenges across the country and in my own community, I find myself drawn to news about ways to finance small business ideas and entrepreneurial ventures. In the latest edition of Technology Review, Kickstarter, a fascinating internet platform for financing startup projects, is highlighted as one of the 10 most important technological milestones reached in the past year. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website that allows the public to pledge funding for a variety of creative startup projects. If a particular hosted project reaches its target fundraising goal in pledges, the project is funded and the donors receive a variety of products and perks in return. A similar site is TechMoola.com, whose latest highlighted project is a low-cost cervical cancer test for women.

These funding platforms are captivating because they allow entrepreneurs to tap into a new market of supporters and engage them in new ways. While these opportunities for startups are indeed exciting, they are not without critics. Many have voiced concern that this concept of publicly financing projects will attract crooks and scam artists. There are also concerns about data breaches on these sites. Just last month, a data breach at Kickstarter.com exposed info on about 70,000 projects before they were ready for release. As these sites and many others attempt to navigate through both the risks and benefits of crowdfunding, we can only hope that the outcome is an explosion of new ideas, new technologies, and greater interaction between innovators and the public they look to serve.

Have you ever supported a crowdfunded project or tried to have a project funded in this way, through Kickstarter or any other venue? Share your story in the comments!