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Minority Inventors

Friday, December 28, 2001 at 1:22 PM

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The forecast for the business of technology is slightly cloudy today. The business technology network reports the recession has hit the industry especially hard - computer and software spending was slowed and the previous quarter indicated a downturn in technology investing. For an inventor, that's not good news. And it may be worse for an inventor who is a minority. Some say even before this recession, windows of opportunities were often closed for people of color. Locally NASA Glenn has been trying to change that - 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports.

Harold Gulley: You’re trying to offer an alternative product, you’re definitely going to run into the resistance.

Tarice Sims: Dr. Harold Gulley is an inventor located at the NASA Glenn Incubator for Technology in Strongsville.

HG: Most of the companies have invested in the products and the lone individual is certainly not going to have an easy time and that’s part of the problem.

TS: Dr. Gulley speaks from experience about the problems some inventors have had to deal with. He’s the president of Bi-K Corporation, a small industrial chemical company. Among his many innovations Dr. Gulley developed a non-toxic substitute for chromate that coats steel to reduce corrosion and increase its brightness.

A student at the former Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Dr. Gulley would putter around his apartment attempting to find the next great invention. He says in his experiences, he found that the road of the inventor is a difficult one, and historically it’s been even more so if that person is a minority. Dr. Gulley releases a heavy sigh as he reflects on the example of Cleveland native Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of the traffic light.

HG: Look at Morgan - that’s totally unfortunate but what yardstick was there for him to measure his invention his genius by? GE will never have to worry about being in business for the rest of its existence. And I’m sure you can understand where his family would have been - same thing with Carver, skip and jip.

TS: Dr. Gulley says he’s concerned that minority inventors are still taken advantage of, which is one reason he hasn’t sold his invention. But he is involved with a program that is helping to make advances for minorities in the world technology. The NASA Glenn Garrett Morgan Commercialization Initiative was developed specifically for small, minority and women-owned technology based companies. Gayle Wright is program manager.

Gayle Wright: The goal of the initiative, really, is to create a competitive advantage for these companies or help them to achieve a competitive advantage. That could mean expending their product line - it could mean helping them to enter into new markets.

TS: Wright says the roughly 3-year-old initiative helps inventors break into the marketplace so their products can be sold. She adds that the technological companies get the financial rewards for their success - unless the innovation is licensed through NASA, then royalties are shared.

Sri Sriram is the president of Srico, a small business that develops optical fiber components for the telecommunications industry. The Columbus-based company was introduced to the Garrett Morgan initiative after they worked with NASA in developing new technology in the mid-nineties.

Sri Sriram: The NASA Garrett Morgan program did the following for us: one, we applied for some key patents to protect our technology; two, we’ve been able to go to some trade shows to talk to key customers and also develop business leads, and we did get some business out of that, and as a result, we have created more technology and more product for some key customers. So we’ve been able to get quarter million dollars in funds.

TS: With that quarter million dollars Srico has developed innovations surrounding the optical chip. Now they work with half-a-dozen clients on new innovations for telecommunications companies through the year 2003. But not many companies have had as much success. Gayle Wright says the resources they provide have become even more essential in the current recession.

GW: So many of the companies that we work with and others that we engage just on an ongoing basis have expressed a slow down in their business. They’re challenged a lot more to be creative in finding new business opportunities.

TS: Wright says lately the Garrett Morgan initiative is getting more inquiries. They get about 20 per month, which is close to double the amount from last year. But she maintains the initiative is selective - they only work with technology-driven companies who are poised for success but face identifiable barriers that the initiative can help overcome. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN News.

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