U.S. Army 1st Lt. Chris Aliperti, left, Kathi Vidal and Pvt. Salem Ezz
Innovation's Force Multiplier
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Kathi Vidal grew up in a Navy family. For a time, she lived in Pensacola, but her father’s duties also took the family to Panama, Germany and the Azores near Portugal. By the time she was 15, she had completed all the math and science requirements to graduate high school, so she started college and majored in electrical engineering.
Her love for science and engineering found another crossroads with the military when after college she was one of two women in General Electric’s Edison Engineering Program working on military aircraft. At GE, she designed one of the first artificial intelligence systems for aircraft and enginecontrol systems that still keeps military men and women safe today. She went on to become a patent attorney. For Vidal, who was confirmed as the nation’s chief intellectual property official last year, the nexus between the nation’s armed forces and innovation also is part of her efforts to create a national innovation system that is accessible to everyone — including those in uniform.
Recently, Vidal traveled to Tampa and the home of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame at the USF Research Park to be a part of Dragon’s Lair, a unique pitch competition hosted by the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base and the 18th Airborne Corps that encouraged service members to bring their best ideas for new technologies to a panel of expert judges. For anyone who thinks joining the military is about doing things the way you are told, it’s time to think again.
Vidal listened intently as a team from Fort Stewart in Georgia presented a 3-D-printed sensor device it created to measure and control humidity levels in soldiers’ barracks. When soldiers are deployed, mold can spread undetected for weeks or months. Last year, a military news outlet reported one soldier returned from a long deployment to find a mold infestation covering the walls of his room and his bed and possessions encrusted in black and green mold. Cleaning up mold in housing costs the military millions of dollars a year.
Among the other six teams competing that day were inventions to protect soldiers’ hands when firing mortar rounds or to help load heavy munitions onto aircraft more quickly. But it was the temperature and humidity sensor system created by U.S. Army 1st Lt. Chris Aliperti and Pvt. Salem Ezz from the 3rd Infantry Division that won the day. “We did not expect to find the greatest threat to our soldiers right now was within their own living areas,” Aliperti said following the competition.
With the win, both Aliperti and Ezz were presented with the Meritorious Service Medal, will be allowed to attend a military school of choice and will receive support to implement their technology, dubbed the Mold Conditions Awareness Tool, across the U.S. Department of Defense.
For Vidal, there is another winner: The nation’s innovation ecosystem. As the vice chair of the government-formed Council for Inclusive Innovation, Vidal has been crossing the country to encourage innovation in overlooked places. “Now is the time to double down on innovation,” she says.
To get more people involved in innovation, the USPTO has created a series of learning opportunities spanning the patenting process and entrepreneurial skills training. The agency works with innovation centers now sprouting up on American military bases.
Another untapped source of innovative talent is military spouses, Vidal says. Despite high education levels among that group, the unemployment rate is 13%, the U.S. Department of Labor reports. Many spouses have the skills and talent to lead startups but lack knowledge of how to license technology from a research university or federal lab or pitch a new venture to potential investors.
Uniting the technological talent and training of the American military with the national innovation ecosystem also acknowledges the important role defense research spending plays in the U.S. tech sector. You can’t separate national security interests from the nation’s global competitiveness as rival nations use technology and economic influence to build alliances or gain geographic footholds. Silicon Valley’s roots in Cold War-era defense spending helped grow university and private sector engineering labs nationwide (including in Florida), leading many tech historians to refer to the U.S. military as “the greatest venture capitalist of them all.” Those collaborations are still an important means of moving ideas from the lab to real-world use.
Just as important, at a time when the nation is facing a military recruiting crisis, creating a culture of innovation in the enlisted ranks attracts inventive thinkers and gives young people new incentives to take advantage of unparalleled learning opportunities. “You have so much diverse talent,” Vidal says. “Today’s military is about problem-solving.”