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Patent lawyers, like undertakers, generally have the decorum not to gloat when business is good, but, boy, these days it must be hard for them to keep quiet. Lately, there seem to be more patent lawsuits under way or threatened than at any other time I can remember. And that leads me to wonder, Don’t the companies filing these lawsuits have anything better to do?

The obvious answer is yes, they do. Despite difficult economic times, today’s high tech companies need to remember their core mission: to bring better products and services to market. Innovation and problem solving play central roles. Equally important is how these organizations pick the problems they will address. With that in mind, I interrupt my normally scheduled program-exposing intellectual-property shenanigans-to bring you a hopeful message about creative problem solving.

As a case in point, I give you physicist Joshua Silver. A University of Oxford experimentalist and self-described “tinkerer,” Silver had a successful academic career in atomic physics, as well as consulting work for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. With a good working knowledge of optics and, as he says, “the hopes of making piles of money,” he undertook some commercial research in the mid-1990s with cosmetics maker Este Lauder: development of a cheap mirror a user could adjust to magnify his or her reflection.

While he was experimenting with prototypes of mirrors and lenses, Silver found a way to adjust the lenses’ focus. By varying the amount of silicone oil between two flexible membranes, Silver realized he could effectively change their curvature. The potential for his research hit home when he took off his own glasses (Silver is myopic) and discovered he could see clearly through his crude lenses.

At about the same time, Silver came across astounding information that helped him refocus his own research goals: an estimated one billion people in the developing world have uncorrected vision. They are nearsighted, farsighted, or in need of reading glasses, and they cannot afford or don’t have access to eyeglasses. Up to half of Americans and Europeans wear corrective lenses, but few people in the developing world do.

To his immense credit, Silver realized his research on lenses could help solve a huge global health problem. He decided to stop working for the cosmetics firm and set his sights higher. He would develop cheap adjustable eyeglasses and bring corrected vision to the enormous number of people in need. Silver recognized that a company set up to deliver these eyeglasses could both pursue a laudable goal and be financially viable. “Once I saw I could do something about this problem, I came to realize that I really should go out and give it a go,” he says.

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