“The Gripper”

Inventors often speak of a phenomenon that they call the “aha moment” – the moment an ingenious solution to a problem pops into their heads with sudden clarity and certainty. One never knows when an “aha” moment is going to come, but for inventor Nicki Lehrer, hers came while she was making covers for her schoolbooks. She was 11 years old at the time.

Born in Washington, D.C. on January 5, 1985, Lehrer grew up in Rockville, Maryland. She was a straight-A student who loved math, science, and discovering how things worked. At school, some of her friends complained of back problems from carrying loads of heavy books in their backpacks. Meanwhile, some schools were disallowing the use of backpacks at all. This meant that students would be forced to carry large, awkward bundles of books in their arms.

Like most schools, Lehrer’s school required her to cover her textbooks, so she brought out the brown paper bags and got started. The bags she was using had handles. The “aha” moment had arrived. Lehrer thought, as long as we’re covering our books anyway, why couldn’t the covers have handles that students could use to carry them? This would solve two problems at once. The handles would be comfortable and flexible, and the cover would be expandable as well as colorful and fashionable. Students could carry their books like lunchboxes or even hang them from their bicycle handlebars.

With her father’s help, Lehrer visited the U.S. Patent Office to conduct a patent search on her device. Nothing like it existed. She was awarded U.S. Patent No. 5,769,477 for “The Gripper” in 1998. She began frequenting school supply trade shows, coming up with marketing plans, and seeking potential licensees for her idea. She continues to pursue business opportunities for the product.

Lehrer calls the process a tremendous learning experience, where she discovered how to file a patent, hire a patent attorney, and conduct market research. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2007 with a BE in Aeronautics and Astronautics. She dreams of becoming an astronaut and plans to get her pilot’s license in the future. As a student at MIT, she interned at The Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington in the product development division.

Lehrer is an also an accomplished classical guitarist. She plays Spanish music, including flamenco, and has performed in more than 120 concerts in the United States and Mexico. Beginning lessons at age 7, she had released three CDs by the age of 17 and has performed in such venues as John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

Her advice to young, aspiring inventors is to have confidence in your ideas. “When you have an idea you think will help people, you should go and run with it,” she said. “It’s important to have confidence in yourself. Explore all the possibilities and take it as far as you can go.”