The smartphone in your pocket is covered under hundreds of patents. Your refrigerator, car, and even your hairdryer get the same treatment. Running afoul of patent laws can land even amateur hardware designers in lots of trouble, sometimes without them realizing it, and it’s a system that many feel is in need of massive reform.
Enter Ayah Bdeir. Bdeir is not only a driving force behind the movement to open up electronic design in a way that allows creative individuals to flourish, she’s also the creator and CEO of littleBits, a system of open-source, interchangeable hardware components that give even the most amateur inventors the power to build impressive gadgets.
But the craziest thing about Bdeir’s career path is that she didn’t necessarily set out to do any of these things. “I didn’t plan to start a company,” she says. “I just became obsessed with solving a problem.” That problem was how to make electronics accessible for anyone who wants to try building a great gadget.
LittleBits was Bdeir’s answer, but coming up with a great idea was only half the battle; the issue of hardware patents was still a major hurdle to her open-source ideas and one that could potentially stifle the creativity of littleBits fans. Without a way for people to openly share and iterate on each other’s work without fear of repercussion, littleBits might have failed, and Bdeir couldn’t sit idly by and wait for the problem to solve itself.
So, along with others in the fledgling open hardware industry, Bdeir helped to launch the first Open Hardware Summit in 2010, where hundreds of attendees converged on New York City to not only showcase their own open-source projects, but to provide input on the future of open hardware design.
As a figure in the open-source community, Bdier also actively worked on what would become Open Source Hardware Definition 1.0, which remains the foundation for open-source hardware guidelines. The definition gives freedom to inventors who wish to tweak, expand, or otherwise use designs that bear the open-source hardware logo, and is one of the single greatest steps toward an open hardware future so far.
Along with helping to reinvent what it means to invent, Bdeir managed to find the time to turn littleBits, which she subsequently founded in 2011, into a thriving enterprise of its own. You can purchase littleBits kits that include everything you need to invent something of your own. LittleBits modules use snap-together magnets in place of complicated wiring, letting even amateur electronics lovers create impressive gadgets based on their own imaginations.
A love of free ideas and the desire to empower even the most unsavvy inventors has not only made Ayah Bdier successful in her own venture, but offers hope to anyone who imagines a future where creativity can thrive without boundaries, and it all began with the desire to solve a problem.
E*TRADE and littleBits are separate and unaffiliated companies and this article does not represent a recommendation by E*TRADE to buy any specific security.