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Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) are opening their doors to a new academic year against a national backdrop of ongoing pandemic challenges, the legacy of racial injustice and rising socioeconomic inequality.

These institutions hold unique potential to bridge longstanding racial and socioeconomic gaps and drive creativity nationwide to unprecedented heights. That’s why it’s time to begin thinking about their power to encourage invention and innovation.

Innovation is the lifeblood of this country. It made the United States the world’s preeminent industrial nation and spurred nearly every period of economic prosperity in our history. Innovation drives economic growth and sustains economic progress, and in so doing it raises wages, improves life expectancy and changes lives.

Here’s an example: Nwanne Onumah is a doctoral student in epidemiology at Jackson State University’s School of Public Health. Onumah has always admired inventors; she developed an interest in new technologies after volunteering with the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and participating in two of its commercialization programs.

Not everyone has equal access to the patent process.

The lessons Onumah took away from those programs were life changing: “Now I see things differently, and my mind is now always open to the possibilities and opportunities to invent new things,” she said in response to a question about her experience. 

Stories like Onumah’s remind us that adopting an inventorship mindset does not always happen instantly, and it often requires support.

Related: OPINION: To train the next generation of entrepreneurs, look to HBCUs

A successful innovation ecosystem depends on millions of inventors taking risks to develop something new, despite the possibility of failure. But inventors generally cannot and will not take risks unless they know that they will be rewarded for their breakthroughs. Nor will they reveal their discoveries if their ideas can simply be taken from them.

That is where patents come in. Patents reward inventors for the risks they take to develop, refine and ultimately disclose their inventions by giving them the exclusive right to use and sell their inventions for a certain period.

Unfortunately, not everyone has equal access to the patent process.

Women, members of racial and ethnic minority groups and individuals with lower incomes patent their inventions at significantly lower rates than their male, white and wealthier counterparts. For example, women make up less than 13 percent of all inventors listed on U.S. patents. Black and Hispanic college graduates apply for and obtain patents at about half the rate of white college graduates. And children from families in the top 1 percent income bracket are 10 times more likely to obtain patents as adults than are children from families in the bottom 50 percent income bracket.

These gaps exacerbate already entrenched inequalities for underrepresented groups. Inventors who hold a patent have higher incomes than inventors who do not. Businesses that hold patents access more capital, attract more customers and licensees and create more jobs. Startups that hold a patent employ an average of 16 more employees after five years than startups that do not.  

When historically excluded individuals are provided the training and resources to access patenting on equal terms, they are empowered to contribute and help grow the American innovation economy.

The potential is enormous.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office estimates that industries relying heavily on intellectual property rights (including patents) account for more than 40 percent of U.S. economic activity and support 63 million jobs, or 44 percent of the U.S. workforce. Research shows that increasing participation in inventing and patenting by underrepresented groups would quadruple the number of American inventors. A bigger invention base would in turn mean more inventions, invigorating the American economy in unprecedented ways and increasing annual U.S. GDP by almost $1 trillion.

HBCUs and MSIs are uniquely positioned to help close inventor diversity gaps. Many students at HBCUs and MSIs have novel ideas and are eager to learn, but lack the resources and exposure to patenting that would enable and protect those inventions.

These barriers can prevent students from pursuing their ideas, depriving the country of potentially life-changing inventions.

That is why a number of HBCUs and MSIs are pursuing initiatives that increase inventing and patenting education and awareness. A recent example is Jackson State University’s adoption of The Inventor’s Patent Academy (TIPA), a free course that incorporates insights and advice from inventors and experts. It helps educate and empower individuals from underrepresented groups to become inventors and experts in their fields of interest.

TIPA teaches students how to develop their own ideas and apply for patents to protect their discoveries. The course also explores the particular challenges facing inventors who are women, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, veterans, from lower-income families, people with disabilities and from other underrepresented groups.

As we begin this school year, we invite HBCUs and MSIs to enlighten students on the benefits of inventing and patenting by adopting TIPA and other programs designed to break down these barriers.

These colleges and universities have the opportunity and tools to help students join the next generation of innovators. HBCUs and MSIs can help diversify the pipeline of innovators to the benefit of all, so that the pool of inventors looks more like America, and ensure that talent meets opportunity.

Almesha L. Campbell is the assistant vice president for Research and Economic Development at Jackson State University, a public historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi. Holly Fechner is the executive director of Invent Together, an alliance dedicated to understanding the gender, race, income and other diversity gaps in invention and patenting and supporting public policies to close them.

This story about minority-serving institutions and innovation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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