Damian Earley’s participation in Ohio Invention League helped propel him to invention successes, and motivate siblings
BY WHITNEY PANDIL-EATON
It was a blustery fall day in Columbus, Ohio, in 2018 when then-12-year-old Damian Earley was taking his boxer dog, Jagger, for his daily constitutional in their Clintonville neighborhood. The boy observed several trash cans had overturned in the wind—spilling the landfill-destined, single-use plastic containers, fast-food wrappers, and other garbage into the narrow urban streets and alleyways of his neighborhood.
The sight of plastic containers rolling along side streets, grocery bags mangled in residential chain-link fences, and everyday refuse strewn about the streets left an impression on the seventh-grader.
“I like the beauty of nature, and it’s pretty sad to me that some aspects are disappearing,” he said, highlighting several environmental disasters in recent memory. “The environment has always been very important to me. I really want to make the world a cleaner place.”
An inventor since third grade, Damian learned how to tackle real-world problems big and small through his participation in the Ohio Invention League. Similar to the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s Camp Invention, the nonprofit organization offers free STEM education to K-12 students.
Robin Hilsmeier, executive director of the league, said approximately 6,000 students participate annually and nearly 500 go on to compete in the league’s district, regional, and state-level invention competitions. Winners can earn between $150 and $2,500 CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings awards.
A young legacy
Damian was introduced to the invention league through a school assembly in second grade.
“They did activities, games, and had wacky hairdos,” he said. “It made [inventing] seem really interesting and fun.”
That excitement led him to participate in the program at the local, state, and national level, winning awards at each for his diverse set of inventions: the “Drone D Medideliverer,” a drone delivery system for prescription medications; a multi-task robot butler designed to entertain, feed, and water pets called the “Dog BonE”; and the “Octglove,” a glove that extends the finger-reach span for pianists.
But his latest invention, “The Garbage Lot,” cemented Damian’s legacy as an inventor.
Recalling the sight of the garbage-strewn streets a year prior, then-eighth-grader Damian began researching and designing a weighted platform for residential garbage cans that had a locking mechanism to keep the cans in an upright position.
“I liked my idea,” he said. “But I never thought it would go this far.”
Damian submitted “The Garbage Lot” to Ohio’s Invention Convention competition in 2020. After winning the “Industry Innovator Award” in the environment and sustainability category on the state level, Damian’s invention was submitted to the national competition—where he won first place for ninth grade and received a Patent Application award.
The award enables the inventor to receive free patent application services from a law firm that specializes in intellectual property. Victor Kernus, patent attorney with Cantor Colburn LLP, worked on Damian’s application process.
Utilizing pro bono services
Having written more than 1,000 applications, Kernus said Damian’s patent process—which took approximately one year—was quick. He received his patent in January.
“Trash cans are a very dense art … there are thousands of patents on different trash can options,” Kernus said. “He found a niche, and that niche was fulfilled by his invention.”
Depending on the length of the prosecution, the cost to obtain a patent can be from $10,000 to $40,000, he said. Due to the high cost, Kernus said pro bono work in the intellectual property field is vital. Statistics bear that out.
The Patent Pro Bono Program run by the United States Patent and Trademark Office provides free patent preparation, filing, and prosecution assistance to low-income and underrepresented inventor groups through its nationwide network of not-for-profit regional programs. To date, program assistance has resulted in more than 2,000 patent application filings that might otherwise have not been possible because of cost or lack of access to legal expertise.
Additionally, several regional organizations provide pro bono services. For example, Minnesota-based LegalCORPS’s Inventor Assistance Program provides free legal representation to low-income inventors attempting to obtain a patent for their invention in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
After serving as a competition judge and providing pro bono services for several years, Kernus said the young inventors involved in the invention competition hold a special place in his heart.
“It’s fun. I’d take them all [on as clients] if I could. These inventors are so excited to go through the process. Their excitement is infectious.”
Damian’s excitement for innovation was evident from an early age. His father, Matt, said his son was a very creative child who loved to build, draw, and create.
Damian’s creativity and intrinsic motivation to succeed was also noticed by his teachers.
Sarah Priebe, who taught him language arts and social studies in sixth grade, recalled an assignment that required the students to research and give an oral presentation on a person and geographic region. She said Damian came dressed up in a costume—fake mustache included—and presented the material in a way that she hadn’t seen from students in the four previous times she had taught the lesson.
“You can tell he put a lot of time and practice into it,” she said. “It’s not something you see often.”
Priebe continued to witness Damian’s intrinsic work ethic when she became the gifted curriculum coordinator at the middle school and worked with him through his eighth-grade year. Because gifted students don’t seem to need to work as hard to excel at school, Priebe said keeping them motivated can be challenging in her experience.
“Damian was always engaged, always listened, always ready,” Priebe said. “He’s just a great kid.”
Damian’s work ethic and attention to detail brought success in the invention convention competitions. His first year, he won third place in the school district Invention Convention competition and went on to compete at the state level with his “Drone D MediDeliverer” device.
Each of Damian’s inventions has advanced to at least the state level of the invention competition. After winning at the National Invention Convention, his “Garbage Lot” device competed in the Global Invention Competition.
Siblings follow suit
That success inspired his younger siblings Elena, 14, and Zavier, 11, to create their own inventions and participate in the invention league competition.
“I saw Damian had a great time, so I wanted to try it, too,” Elena said.
In fourth grade, Elena invented the “Mold Monster,” an absorbent ring made of polymer material that can be placed in the door seal of front-loading washing machines. She came up with the idea after hearing her mom complain about odors emitting from the washing machine.
Another invention, the “MicMask,” has a built-in microphone and amplifier to increase the voice projection of a person wearing a protective mask. Created in 2021, Elena’s mask invention won first place for her grade level in the state competition. Both of her inventions were invited to compete in the National Invention Convention.
Zavier has participated in invention competitions four times. He began his career in innovation in first grade with his invention “Brick Drone,” a drone with arms that can transport heavy objects for people with reduced strength or mobility. Other inventions include a shoe shield—created to protect sports-playing surfaces from damage from cleats—and “Eyebuds,” blue screen glasses with attached headphones and microphone to increase comfort during online learning.
Zavier won third place in the state competition for his grade level for “Eyebuds” and went on to compete in the National Invention Convention.
This story was edited for brevity. See the full story at uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.
Each month, the USPTO’s Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs who have made a positive difference in the world.