Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer exists to encourage the transfer of lab-developed innovations to the private sector to drive further innovation and enhance the nation’s economic competitiveness. Part of its efforts include ensuring the work of lab inventors is safeguarded legally through patents so others can see and build on their ideas.
Senior Patent Licensing Executive Aaron Sauers brings a unique perspective to his role as OPTT’s intellectual property manager, as he’s an inventor himself and knows the challenges the patent process can present. He’s also living proof that inventing happens at all levels and in the oddest places, and that – as in his case – the simplest things can inspire even those who don’t think of themselves as inventors to create new and novel approaches.
For Sauers, the moment of inspiration came while he was ironing a shirt. “I was thinking about a system Bob Kephart developed before he retired from Fermilab that used a vehicle-mounted mobile accelerator to cure asphalt as it was applied to roadways. One of the issues was there was no way to regulate that system — it was either on or off. While I was ironing, I noticed the iron would shut itself off for safety every time I stopped moving it, and it dawned on me we could do something similar with the mobile accelerator,” Sauers explained.
He then worked with Kephart to develop the idea. “We found that by synchronizing the pulses of the mobile accelerator with the motion of its mobile platform and the sweep of its fanned beam, we could turn a mobile accelerator into an infrastructure-scale 3D print head,” Sauers said. “We could see this control system being used for projects as simple as crosslinking pothole fillings and as complex as printing giant turbine blades in the field using a mobile-rastered e-beam.”
Sauers and Kephart spent the next year refining their system and assembling the documents needed for a patent application. “We knew a patent would help put our idea out there as a teaching tool for others. It took some work, but it was worth it to know the lab was protected and the technology is available for others to benefit from and build on — which is what patents are designed to do.”
Sauers said his first-hand experience as a patented inventor has helped him be a better guide to others. “Because I’ve been through it, I’m better able to walk potential applicants through the application process, explain the details, and address any concerns they have,” he said. “Most people say it isn’t as difficult as they expected, and that’s thanks in part to the concierge-level of service the OPTT provides.”
Part of that service is encouraging applicants to “think big” about future uses of their ideas. “I tell inventors that the more they can anticipate additional applications for their technology, the stronger their application will be and the better it will protect the lab’s interests. I’ll help them brainstorm possible uses and build an idea space where they can push the boundaries and make their innovations as broadly applicable as possible,” Sauers said.
In the end, Sauers says, inventing is a fun and rewarding activity that everyone can participate in. “It doesn’t take any special training or talent to become an inventor — ideas are everywhere. Any time you come up with a novel or clever way to address a work challenge, you are doing the work of an inventor. Just be sure and contact the OPTT so we can help ensure that your ideas are protected and available for others to benefit from,” he said.