Alexis Lewis knows your secret: You’re an inventor

The teen innovator already has one patent, with another pending. Now she’s on a mission to make that no big deal.

By Garage Staff — April 10, 2018

In February 2015, as then-15-year-old inventor Alexis Lewis was preparing to give her second TEDx talk, she often heard people refer to her as a genius or be simply stunned by her youth. This frustrated her deeply.

“What is wrong with you guys?” she thought, noting that humans have been inventing since our first days on Earth. “When they had a problem, they solved it. That’s what invention is: problem-solving with a physical solution.” Why was her success such a surprise to people?

It's this assumption — that inventing is something only geniuses can do or that it requires decades of life and learning to attempt — that Lewis, now 18, believes is cheating society of much-needed ideas and innovation. “Every person is born with the ability to solve real-world problems,” she says. “Anyone can invent. They just need to be told that they can.”

Now, Lewis is on a quest to take inventing mainstream — to make it something that everyone does, all over the globe, whenever necessary. And she just might be on the verge of pulling that off. But the effort has seen a few twists and turns along the way.

An early role model is key

Lewis has been inventing since she was 12, when she was still a boy named Chase Lewis, who fit the widespread image of a typical inventor — a profile confirmed by a large recent study of patent records. Before she transitioned in spring 2015, Lewis had been a white male from an upscale neighborhood.

But she also had another advantage that the study’s authors found was common among the 1.2 million patent holders they reviewed: Lewis had an inventor in the family for inspiration — her engineer grandfather, who had worked on the Apollo moon-landing project.  

Lewis believes that early exposure to inventing is the key to leapfrogging societal distortions arising from race, gender and household income to unlock the “inventive potential” of people everywhere.

“My grandfather grew up in a working-class, blue-collar family,” she says. “Yet he became a rocket scientist. His success showed me that innovation is something anyone can do — and gave me the confidence to try my hand at it.”

Courtesy of Alexis Lewis

First light bulb

In 2011, Lewis learned that refugees in Africa sometimes had to leave their children on the side of the road to die if they couldn’t continue to carry them all the way to a refugee center. So she came up with a new take on a traditional Native American design, for which she received a patent in March 2015.

Lewis's Rescue Travois is a triangular gurney with wheels at the wide end and a belt that goes around the wearer’s waist at the other. It's lightweight and assembles and disassembles easily, so relief workers can air-drop bundles of parts, tools and instructions for dozens of the devices to refugees as they’re en route to camps.

Later, Lewis saw a news story about a mother who had thrown her infant out of a burning building to save the baby from smoke inhalation, which inspired Lewis to invent a football-shaped container for a smoke mask that can be accurately thrown to people trapped on the second story of a burning building. The patent for her Emergency Mask Pod was filed in January 2015 and is currently pending. 

Problem-to-prototype builds essential skills

Lewis’s next idea was to bring the opportunity to invent to schoolchildren everywhere via a course called Inventing 101.

To shape it, she followed the same basic steps of inventing that she uses and wants schools to teach: see a problem; research possible solutions, including asking experts for help; design a prototype; make it; test it; then remake it or pivot based on test results.

This problem-to-prototype process, Lewis notes, builds essential skills that people need throughout their lives even if they don’t become inventors, including close observation, conceptual and critical thinking, the confidence to ask strangers to share their expertise — and perhaps most important, seeing failure not as an ending but as useful feedback for the next iteration.

In summer 2014, as part of her research for Inventing 101, Lewis sought the input of Greg Pearson, National Academy of Engineering Scholar of K-12 Engineering and Public Understanding of Engineering. Pearson’s advice, borne of a lifetime in the field, was direct: Designing a curriculum — and getting it approved by all necessary parties — can be a years-long slog. Let others wrestle with the nitty-gritty of curriculums, he said. Instead, Pearson encouraged Lewis to use her passion, accomplishments and youth to spread the word about the importance of inventing education.

“Anyone can invent. They just need to be told that they can.”

Alexis Lewis

Catching the attention of movers and shakers

Lewis went on to advocate for the cause at TEDxUNC, the Smithsonian Institution, SXSW EDU and the White House, and was featured on CBS and Fox Television and in mini-documentaries by Smithsonian Magazine and New Form Media. She also nabbed meetings with governors and legislators.

Then she discovered there was a new organization dedicated to sparking and supporting young inventors. The STEMIE Coalition — for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, plus Invention and Entrepreneurship — is a global consortium of invention-education stakeholders that organizes the National Invention Convention & Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE) for grades K-12, and will soon unveil its STEMIE Invention Convention Curriculum. Lewis’s mother, Michelle Fishburne, became the group’s Director of PR and Communications last summer.

On the horizon: A social network for inventing

Lewis’s newest idea, which she will present at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley in June, is her biggest yet: crowd-sourced problem-solving via a free global platform, with millions of prospective innovators onboard. Companies, governments and other organizations would post problems to the site, and people all over the world would use their unique perspectives to find unique solutions. While in development, the details of the platform’s inner workings are between Lewis and her potential partners. She’s hoping to attract backing from heavy hitters in social platforms — or any industry with room for new ideas.

“You never know who will make the right observations and think in the right way to solve a particular problem,” says Lewis, who’ll begin her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall. “That’s why you don’t want to restrict membership in the inventors’ club — because we all have something to share.”


Visit Lewis’s website and follow her on Twitter @alexis_invent.