Bennett C. Ward, Ph.D., has been elected to the role of Fellow in the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Election to NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.
Ward is a prolific inventor who currently holds 35 patents. His inventions span many technology areas including oil extraction, at-home pregnancy tests, surgical devices, printer inks and air fresheners. A 33-year industry veteran, Ward’s research focuses on polymer chemistry, novel filtration systems and new product development.
From 2015-2021, Ward was the VCU College of Engineering’s director of project outreach and ran the college’s Capstone Design program, which takes student teams through a year-long process of innovating solutions to real-world problems. He also led a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) team developing medical devices, which featured close collaboration between VCU’s engineering and health sciences programs. He now holds an affiliate appointment with VCU’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering.
“Under Dr. Ward’s leadership, our students learned how to envision novel solutions to problems and then make them real. He inspired them to think creatively while at the same time, to find a path to make their ideas result in practical outcomes. It is small wonder that he generated so many important inventions throughout his career,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. dean of VCU Engineering.
As a research chemist with the Hoechst-Celanese Corporation in the 1980s and research and development manager in 1990s, Ward invented Celazole, a thermoplastic that remains the most thermally resistant and moldable polymer ever commercialized. Celazole is used widely throughout the aerospace and oil industries, in key temperature and chemically resistant components used for oil well blow-out preventers, and in composite matrix resins for high-temperature aerospace applications.
Ward then joined Filtrona as vice president of research and development. There, he developed innovations that are seen regularly on the aisles of Target, Walmart, Office Depot, CVS and other retailers. Examples include the wicking material and color-change technology used in at-home pregnancy tests, a wick that gives home fragrance devices better fragrance-throw and an inkjet printer technology that wastes less ink.
While training young innovators at VCU Engineering, Ward’s avocation as an inventor continued. For example, he was part of the interdisciplinary VCU team that developed the patented “No Wire Left Behind” device that prevents wires from being left inside patients during surgery.
Ward emphasized that collaboration is key to almost all successful inventions and hesitates to view his election to NAI Fellow as a purely individual honor.
“I want to mention that I am the sole inventor on only one of my patents,” he said. Because developing new inventions usually requires many complex specialties, Ward said, most patents are the product of teams, not individuals. “In fact,” he added, “I sometimes look sideways at patents that list only one inventor. I wonder who was left out.”
Ward and this year’s other 2021 College of Fellows inductees will be honored in a ceremony at the organization’s national meeting in June 2022.
Ward is VCU Engineering’s third NAI Fellow. B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D.,the Floyd D. Gottwald Jr. Chair in pharmaceutical engineering and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, was inducted as an NAI Fellow in 2019.
In 2016, Dean Barbara Boyan became Virginia Commonwealth University’s first NAI Fellow.
Advice to inventors from VCU Engineering’s newest NAI Fellow
Bennett C. Ward, Ph.D.’s career as an inventor and educator has taught him many things about the innovation process. Here are a few:
Keep your mind open — and fill it with information.
Whether you are in industry or academia, it is essential to read the newest literature about the area in which you are working, Ward said. “This is how you know whether what you are doing is actually new and innovative,” he said. “It will also reveal the spaces where new ideas are needed.
Talk to as many people as possible.
“One mistake people make is creating something they ‘think’ people will use, instead of asking what they need,” Ward said. Conversations are crucial to developing technologies people will actually use — and pay for. Ward especially urges inventors to talk with their target industry’s customers, salespeople and engineers. Discover what they need, then figure out how to deliver it. Also, be aware that “the customer is never wrong but not always right,” he added.
Be aware that getting a patent is expensive.
From filing fees to intellectual property attorneys, the costs associated with getting a U.S. patent on a single invention is often a surprise to early-stage inventors. “From start to finish, the cost of obtaining one patent is often $50,000-$100,000,” Ward said. He strongly encourages inventors to keep this in mind, and to ask themselves if their invention is likely to generate enough revenue to compensate for these expenses.
Academia and industry often have built-in support for inventors.
Innovators who don’t want to put up their own capital to cover the high cost of getting a patent should consider working in industry or the university space. Academic centers such as VCU’s Innovation Gateway help university inventors get their products to market. Businesses have their own intellectual property teams to guide and assist their employees in getting their inventions patented, as well.