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2 UH scientists receive prestigious national recognition for fostering innovation

Mark Clarke (left) and Wei-Chuan Shih were named among the National Academy of Inventors' inaugural class of senior members. Courtesy of the University of Houston

Two researchers at the University of Houston have been named to the inaugural class of senior members for the National Academy of Inventors. The new distinction recognizes the honorees for fostering innovation and educating and mentoring future innovators — as well as their contribution to science and technology.

The two UH honorees are Mark Clarke, associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs, and Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Both will be recognized at the eighth annual NAI meeting in Houston this April, a release from UH says.

"Dr. Clarke and Dr. Shih both have impressive records of producing impactful intellectual property and spurring innovation that is pertinent to the Houston region," Amr Elnashai, vice president of research and technology at UH, says in the release. "Their further efforts, including helping UH faculty commercialize technologies as well as working with graduate and undergraduate students to boost their entrepreneurial efforts, are a critical contribution to building the region's innovation ecosystem."

NAI named 65 total scientists from 37 universities as senior members. The scientists have been named on over 1,100 patents issued in the United States. Ten other Texas scientists made the inaugural class, representing Texas Tech university, Texas A&M; University, Baylor College of Medicine, and University of Texas at Arlington.

The organization also has a fellowship program, in which UH has 12 current fellows.

Clarke has been at UH for over a decade and previously held the position of associate vice chancellor/vice president for technology transfer at the UH Division of Research, where he oversaw a portfolio of 360 technology patents, according to the release. Clarke has 13 patents to his name and previously worked at two startups — both commercialized technologies Clarke developed in his tenure at NASA then UH.

UH's other senior NIA member, Shih, has been granted 11 patents in the US. His NanoBioPhotonics Group has developed a number of sensing and imaging technologies and devices for biomedicine and environmental testing, among other fields. Shih, who has been at the university for over nine years, created a startup with a group of students called DotLens. The company produced and distributed lenses that could be used to convert a smartphone into a microphone.

A few months ago, a Houston scientist received international recognition when he won the Nobel Prize for the cancer research he did for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer center. Jim Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor.
Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi was looking for a way to engage her children in after school education. After failing to find anything that existed, she started brainstorming a new, engaging education model.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

Qureshi turned her passion project into IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. She opened 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Now the company has locations across the United States and around the world.

The passion she had at Idea Lab's start has become an essential part of each franchise location, and Qureshi is seeking out franchise partners just as passionate to "take our idea far and wide," she says

"We are educating the future innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow," Qureshi says.

Front of class
Idea Lab locations around the country are engaging children from pre-k through high school in hands-on projects that reflect their own interests. Qureshi's goal is to take learning beyond the classroom.

"Anytime kids are out of school, Idea Lab is in session," says Qureshi.

Qureshi recalls that when fidget spinners were dubbed a distraction in traditional schools, children in Idea Labs were studying how the toy's motor operates, and were actually creating their own spinners using 3-D printers.

"Idea Lab picks up the slack in areas that traditional schools are unequipped to excel," explains Qureshi.

Small class sizes, and an array of technology and materials give children attending their after-school programs, weekend workshops, summer camps, or birthday parties the opportunity to use technologies that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

"You'll never see our kids just listening to lectures; it's all project-based," she says. "We are training them for the skills they will need for their jobs in the next 5, 10, 15 years."

Getting the ball rolling
Qureshi began Idea Lab in Houston seven years ago, inspired by the challenge of raising her own children with quality STEAM education.

"My background is in IT," she explains, "but I felt like I was really missing out on being part of my children's lives, so I decided to leave corporate life. I put my energy into my kids and finding the best educational opportunities for them. But I realized there was a void."

With the need to build and create inherent in her personality, Qureshi quickly saw her new company begin to grow.

Qureshi's oldest son, now headed for college, is a big part of her personal success story with her Idea Lab program. She saw his creativity and motivation for learning blossom throughout his years of Idea Lab classes such as coding movie production, or robotics. Qureshi is excited that Idea Lab still provides the same educational boost to thousands of children that she saw so profoundly impact her son.

Especially after her experience in starting her own business, Qureshi wants to encourage future entrepreneurs through Idea Lab's entrepreneurship program. Projects that children develop within this program embody all aspects of the blended learning STEAM model, plus a good measure of critical thinking and creativity. Children may build their own restaurant, and as founders, managers, and chefs, they must create menus and pricing, recipes with units of measure, 3-D printed objects such as spoons, and navigate other realities of owning a small business. Equally as important, children must learn to collaborate toward common goals, and utilize each other's strengths.

Ready for graduation
The company is actively looking for expansion opportunities and prospective franchisees.

"The ideal franchisee," Qureshi says, "is someone who 'gets' the void in the education, understands the education industry, or has kids for whom they haven't been able to find great programs for."

Thus far, Idea Lab has 52 assigned territories in the United States, six in Canada, one opening soon in Ecuador, and talks are beginning with other country partners. Although for Qureshi, founding Idea Lab from the ground up required countless hours of dedication.,

"When you buy a franchise, everything is all worked out for you, all the hardship has been taken out of it, as someone has already done the trial and error," Qureshi says.

Idea Lab provides materials and models for everything from tested and vetted curriculum to implementation of their programs, making it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.

As Idea Lab keeps its finger on the pulse of the next wave of innovation to motivate children, and grow their business, they are looking for partners who are interested in helping to provide a creative education to the community.

As Qureshi always tells parents, "with a little bit of a push, you'll be surprised by how many new things kids can learn through their own exploration, if given the opportunity."