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Fostering Rural Innovation

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

Listening to the national media, one would think that the major urban areas like Silicon Valley in California and Boston have cornered the market on new innovations. Although population is certainly higher in many areas, there are innovators all over rural America. We just don’t hear as much about them. The Kansas Small Business Development Centers (KSBDC) would like to change that and, in our region, we’re going to help spread the word to celebrate and foster rural innovation. We at Fab Lab ICC are co-hosting an event called the Rural and Independent Innovators Conference on May 20 and 21 at ICC West. More on that at the end of this column. 

A brief look at Google patent search shows that in this corner of Southeast Kansas, Montgomery County, patents were prolific in the period from about 1900 through the mid 1920’s. In all the years since then, there have been patents, but not at the break-neck pace of that first period. More about the reasons for that in a future column. 

A partial list of those patents suggests a wide diversity of problems being solved. The last two are much later and I wish I had the resilient tire on my current riding mower. Here is a partial list of some of items in Google’s patent search for Montgomery County Kansas. Pump rig or jack, pressure valve, refrigerator, washing machine, fruit picker, ship construction, display rack, resilient tire, pencil holder, wire fence machine, arm rest for Jeep vehicle, live animal trap. 

We now realize that a patent alone is no indicator of future market success. Except in the cases of the last two items on the list, we don’t know much about the commercial viability of the earlier items. Yet, just the volume over a few years in the early 20th century says something about the rural innovators ability to invent solutions to current day problems. In the case of the Jeep arm rest, thousands were sold in a day when arm rests were not standard equipment. Inventor Doug Misch went on to invent and market dozens of after-market Jeep accessories over the next 40 years. He has since sold the company, Misch’s 4 x 5 Products, and continues innovating in other ways while also helping Fab Lab ICC members develop their innovations for possible release to the marketplace. The live trap was invented by Independence resident Dana Watson. In his case, being proprietor of the successful Watson Vending company, he sold a license for his trap to the corporation that owns Victor traps. His invention is marketed and sold world-wide. 

Innovators are alive and well in rural American, many of them own and operate our family farms and small businesses. We should be doing all we can to “bring them out” and help them in any way we can to develop their products and bring them to the marketplace. That is the purpose of the Rural and Independent Innovators Conference (RIIC) initiated by KSBDC last January in Manhattan, Kansas. Lab manager Tim Hayes and I participated in this two-day event, sitting on panels to discuss how Fab Lab ICC can help with the prototyping and development of new products. The vision of KSBDC is to host regional RIICs around the state throughout the year with an overall statewide conference once each year. We at the Lab are pleased to be co-hosting the first of these regional RIICs on May 20 and 21 at ICC West. We hope to attract “closet” innovators that have had ideas on their heads for years, current innovators in various stages of coming to market and experienced innovators to tell the stories of their journeys to market. We also want to attract the practitioners that can help the innovators’ efforts; business coaches, technical consultants, patent advisors and financial people. There will be lots of networking and the “closet” innovators will see that the experienced innovators are just like them but made a decision to come out of the closet at some point in the past. 

We’ll post an information link and path to register at fablabicc.org or search for RIIC on Facebook. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks.  


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