Zac Manchester's Sprite prototype

8 Insights From Upstart Inventors Under 30

As the tools to create incredible inventions become more accessible to the masses, the classic “inventor” profile is being expanded, exploded, and reconfigured. Designers, web developers, and entrepreneurs are joining scientists and tinkerers to yield the next wave of world-changing inventions.

From a photo sharing app to clothing made from sour milk, we look at the origin stories of eight inventors under 30 and extract a shortlist of “invention takeaways.”

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1. Make it convenient.
Daniel Ek, Inventor of Spotify, Age 29

In the early days of Spotify, Daniel Ek was often quoted as saying “To succeed, any music service needs to be more convenient than piracy.” Ek knew that the only way he could get people to use Spotify would be to make it faster, easier to use, and more accessible than piracy. He is “obsessed” with reducing the time between click and sound, which means buying more and more servers and constantly improving the efficiency of the code.

2. Connect the dots.
Javier Fernandez-Han, Inventor of the VERSATILE System, Age 17

Javier Fernandez-Han designed an algae-based system that treats waste and produces biofuels, food, and oxygen. In short, the system solves multiple problems in one self-contained unit. According to Han, “A single invention rarely solves an entire problem. Often we only see a small part of a larger problem without seeing the connections between the many parts.”

3. Embrace constraints.
William Kamkwamba, Windmill Builder, Age 24.

When he was 14, William Kamkwamba saw a diagram of a windmill in an American 8th grade textbook he borrowed from the library. He modified the design and then constructed a 5-meter windmill behind his house out of the sundry items available to him: a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber, a car battery, and a few blue gum trees. This windmill along with a homemade circuit breaker and switches still powers his family’s home.

A single invention rarely solves an entire problem.

4. Extend a personal invention to the public.
David Karp, Founder of Tumblr, Age 25

David Karp describes himself as a guy who doesn’t like to write that much. He was a fan of ‘tumblelogs,’ a type of short-form blogging started in 2005 that put equal focus on text, photos, videos, and mp3s. After waiting over a year for someone to put out tumblelogging software, Karp finally decided to make his own site with the features he wanted. Then, he took that code and used it to develop Tumblr – the very platform he had been waiting for. Karp wagered that there were plenty of other people that wanted to share content in the same ways he did.

5. Solve a problem that means something to you.
Anke Domaske, Inventor of QMilch Milk Fiber, Age 28

Anke Domaske has created a revolutionary textile from an unusual source: sour milk. The fabric, called QMilch, looks and feels like silk, but can be washed and cared for like cotton. Domaske started the process of creating a skin-friendly fabric after watching her stepfather endure constant skin irritation during his treatment for cancer. The process uses only 2 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of fabric, making it over 5,000 times more water-efficient than producing cotton.

6. Release it into the real world & watch.
Kevin Systrom, Creator of Instagram, Age 27

Before its billion-dollar buyout, Instagram started out as Burbn, a mashup of Foursquare-style check-ins and other content-driven functionality that included photo-sharing. Burbn was too complex to attract many users, but founder Kevin Systrom says it was extremely valuable as a testbed. He found out “how people were actually using the product as opposed to how they were meant to be using it.” Once Systrom and Co realized that photo-sharing was Burbn’s most powerful feature, they scrapped everything else – giving birth to the lean, speedy Instagram app that’s so popular today.

Before its billion-dollar buyout, Instagram started out as Burbn.

7. Keep your focus streamlined.
Marco Arment, Creator of Instapaper, Age 29

Marco Arment created Instapaper so he could read all the web content he came across at work on his wifi-free subway commute. He coded the initial app in a single night, and used it himself for months before sharing it with others. When he opened up the web and iPhone app to the public, he got thousands of users in a matter of days.

According to an interview on Rands in Repose, Marco says he’s able to run Instapaper successfully by himself because part of his design philosophy is eliminating “time-sink” features that “produce mediocre-at-best results, are never truly finished, and usually require massive time investments.” He describes his own app as a “bunch of very easy things and only a handful of semi-hard things.”

8. Give your invention a story.
Zac Manchester, Inventor of the Sprite chip-sized satellite

“I want to make it easy enough and affordable enough for anyone to explore space” reads a line from Zac Manchester’s Kickstarter campaign. He pitches the Sprite, a solar-powered, radio-enabled satellite the size of a few postage stamps, as the first step to democratizing space flight. Manchester’s vision of open space exploration rallied 315 donors to put in nearly $75,000 for a launch of personalized Sprites into low-Earth orbit in 2013. By focusing on the implications and ideals of his invention rather than just the technological specifications, Manchester gained a much larger following than he might have otherwise.

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Todd Anderson

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Todd Anderson is an editorial assistant for 99U. He is also an NYC-based performance poet and the producer of the Poetry Observed video series.
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