Rory Cooper’s brain rarely turns off, and that’s a good thing for the people who benefit from his ingenuity.
Cooper, a biomedical engineer, disabled Army veteran, and founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh, was just inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
He likes to joke that he can generate a million ideas quickly — some of them quirky and easily discarded, but as one colleague told a young assistant, “Just listen carefully because many of them are actually good ideas.”
“I like to think of myself as an inventor and a problem solver. I don’t know why, but it’s kind of how I see the world. I’ve always looked at something and said, ‘Oh, that could be better,’” says Cooper, who lives in West Deer with his wife Rosemarie, a physical therapist and professor with Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “The positive side of that is, I’m actually pretty handy. I can make things and fix things, and that’s a useful skill to have. I enjoy it and I’m always kind of thinking about things.”
To hear him say it, it sounds modest, but Cooper’s body of work has improved the design of wheelchairs and the experience for wheelchair users worldwide. He holds 25 U.S. patents, two of which landed him in this year’s National Inventors Hall of Fame class along with Luis von Ahn, founder and CEO of Duolingo. A consulting professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University, von Ahn co-invented the website security program CAPTCHA and created reCAPTCHA.
“It’s pretty cool,” Cooper says of the Hall of Fame induction that will happen with two days of ceremonies in October. Only about 400 Americans are in the Hall. “You have to have patents that have changed America socially.”
There’s no question that Cooper’s work has done that, including his efforts to advance social inclusion of people with disabilities and older adults. He’s also a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army and a director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America Research Foundation.
The first of his two inventions that won Hall of Fame status is the technology for ergonomic push rims to change the way a wheelchair user grips the wheels and reduce wrist, elbow and shoulder pain. The second, and arguably bigger invention, is the mathematical and software algorithms for joysticks on powered wheelchairs — a huge advance in mobility assistance.
Beyond ideas, Cooper says, being a researcher and inventor requires tenacity and resilience. It’s not conducive to overnight success.
“I was fortunate in both of those cases because I use a wheelchair and I know a lot of wheelchair users and they brought those problems to me,” he says. Still, the work involved 10 to 15 years of studying scientific, medical and patent literature and experimenting with technologies until the problems were solved. Cooper and his team have also invented an air-powered wheelchair that can function in water so kids can visit water parks, a wheelchair that climbs stairs, and the MEBot, a self-leveling wheelchair.
Cooper grew up in California, where his parents still live. An Eagle Scout, he liked to tinker with ideas as a kid to improve upon the design of skateboards, bicycles and motorcycles, winning a design competition as a junior in high school for a motorcycle that he never built. Life got in the way.
Cooper enlisted with the Army, wanting to escape small-town life and see the world. While stationed in Germany in 1980, a bicycle accident left him with a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down. He returned home to study electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, and then earned his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, with a concentration in bioengineering, from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“A little advantage that I had,” he says, “I continued to go on to college and engineering and that helped me to expand my knowledge and make it possible to make broader contributions and solve some difficult problems.”
His work advising the Army these days focuses on helping wounded servicemembers and veterans through adaptive sporting programs and introducing them to assistive technologies. Cooper helps to train residents and fellows at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and introduces the community to the Army and vice versa. The U.S. military is struggling to find recruits, Pentagon leaders have warned Congress.
“Not as many serve and people just don’t know what the Army is, and sometimes they have a misperception,” Cooper says.
Pitt and Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh recruited Cooper 29 years ago, when the city was transforming itself with an “eds and meds” persona and then high-tech startups and advanced manufacturing. Cooper works at Bakery Square, which was still a Nabisco factory when he arrived.
“The whole complex continues to grow,” he says. “I like to think it’s a microcosm, a reflection of what’s happened in Pittsburgh in general.”
Next year Cooper and the team will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “It’s pretty remarkable,” he says. “Not many research organizations make it that long. Most of them fade away, basically for lack of funding or just [because] the priority is no longer a priority.”
The lab is Cooper’s most significant career accomplishment — though he’ll say, “What I’m most proud of is, I convinced my wife Rosi to marry me” more than 40 years ago — as the engine that has fueled all the research and inventions.
“I’m equally as proud of the people who have contributed to our research,” Cooper says. “My colleagues, our staff and the people who have participated in our research — they’re just as important as anybody else.”
Some inventions are licensed to companies for manufacturing, or the researchers work to form a startup company. In a few cases, they have manufactured products at the lab — for example, a prosthetic-compatible computer mouse at the VA’s request, needed by perhaps only 800 people, so difficult to make into a commodity item. The VA is seeking a company to license the On the Move Pad, a cushioned neoprene wrap that can be used on toilet seats, wheelchairs, sports chairs and armrests.
“I’ve failed a lot, too,” Cooper admits. “All inventors fail a lot, and all researchers fail a lot. … You learn from each one. It takes a while to get used to it. You have to check your ego, and every time you don’t succeed or achieve what you were anticipating to achieve, it’s a learning opportunity. You learn a lot more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.
“That’s probably the attitude that’s helped me get through this, to go to college and be where I am. Research is a hard career to choose. You get a lot of criticism, and it takes a lot of grit to succeed. So does inventing, by and large. A friend told me, ‘You’ve been very fortunate. A lot of people are inventors, but their inventions don’t really make any difference.’”