Wednesday marks final judging for U inventors in competition

The classic idea of an âÄúinventorâÄù might be a lone genius tinkering in a basement lab. But University of Minnesota electrical engineering alumnus and inventor Patrick Delaney âÄôs innovation process has involved world travel and lots of listening. HeâÄôs been working on ways to help developing Nicaraguan communities since he first visited the Central American country in 2004. Four years later, he and teammates Matt Beckler , a computer engineering alumnus, and electrical engineering senior Caleb Braff are one of 12 finalist teams âÄî narrowed from a field of more than 100 âÄî in the nationwide Collegiate Inventors Competition with their solar-powered light. Final judging is scheduled to take place Wednesday in Kansas City , Mo., where one grand-prize team will receive $25,000, and two other teams âÄî one undergraduate and one graduate âÄî will each receive $15,000. The teamâÄôs invention is a miniature solar-powered system that charges a battery, which then powers a light-emitting diode for nighttime lighting. Because the team is in the process of getting a patent for the design, Delaney didnâÄôt reveal further details. Powering LEDs with solar energy is nothing new, but the teamâÄôs invention is novel because it can overcome some of the challenges of providing solar lanterns to developing communities, team adviser and electrical engineering faculty Paul Imbertson said. Figuring out a sustainable system for getting solar lanterns to people through a business model or conditional transfer system, rather than simply giving them away, is a challenge. Beyond that, there are issues with getting materials for the lights and shipping the parts. Imbertson said DelaneyâÄôs idea gets around many of those roadblocks. âÄúItâÄôs the whole holistic picture, which I thought was very, very unique,âÄù he said. âÄúIdeas are a dime a dozen, but whatâÄôs a big deal are solutions.âÄù He said he expects the innovation to be used in a variety of ways. âÄúPart of the beauty,âÄù he said, is that it âÄúcan be directly integrated into local culture.âÄù It could also be part of a new model of power distribution for developing countries, he added. While developed nations like the United States depend on central power plants, some think a distributed model might be better. Since developing nations can âÄústart from scratch,âÄù solar lanterns and other micro-power systems might be the first step toward new distributed power models. If his team wins prize money, Delaney said it will be put into studying the idea further. He said heâÄôs particularly interested in figuring out how to distribute the light so it will increase access to education. ThatâÄôs where Macalester College economics assistant professor and University alumna Amy Damon comes in. She has experience evaluating education programs in Latin America, and now sheâÄôs working with Delaney to evaluate how lights could impact education in Nicaragua. âÄúThe idea of bundling this new technology and the evaluation of it is kind of fun and new for me,âÄù she said. Extending the amount of âÄúproductive lightâÄù in a household could give kids more time to do homework and can have a positive impact on their overall education. By randomly assigning households to receive lights with and without the condition that the familiesâÄô children attend school, sheâÄôll try to learn what factors enable a household to invest in education and skill development. The University team is one of only four undergraduate team finalists. Two others are from Johns Hopkins University , while one is from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.