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Mark Benden elected to 2023 National Academy of Inventors

Prestigious role is a result of the School of Public Health professor’s penchant for innovation
portrait of Mark Benden in his workshop

Like many of his generation, Mark Benden, PhD, grew up watching “The Six Million Dollar Man”  and credits the hit show for opening his eyes to technology’s possibilities.

But Benden didn’t dream of becoming the heroic lead character. Instead, he was drawn to the innovative prosthetics.

“I was a geek and wanted to be the scientist who was building the bionics,” the Texas A&M University School of Public Health professor remembered.

Three decades later, Benden is at the top of his game in ergonomics. He’s worked in industry and higher education, holds 23 patents, has received multiple honors in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurism, and helped found four faculty-led start-up companies.

This stellar body of work resulted in his election to the prestigious 2023 National Academy of Inventors (NAI). “This is the highest professional honor I could ever hope for,” said Benden, who currently serves as the head of the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “It’s nice confirmation after spending 35 years in my career.”

A family trait

Benden credits his father, who was a machinist, and grandfather, who was a coal miner, with sparking his initial interest in innovation as a boy.

“They both were inventive hands-on problem solvers who were ‘If I don’t have it, I’ll make it’ types of folks,” he said. “They were both craftsmen—and they taught me a lot of the trades’ hands-on skills. They made me very comfortable with the idea that if I could see it in my brain, I could build it.”

That passion for creating led him to enroll at Texas A&M, where he studied bioengineering as an undergraduate student. Initially interested in pursuing medicine, Benden shifted his path after taking an elective course on ergonomics as a fifth-year senior.

“It really pivoted my view of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I loved that it combined biomechanics and some knowledge of the human body and it would allow me to develop solutions and interventions and new products to help people. It was just a nice fit.”

The Maryland native remained at Texas A&M to earn a master’s degree in industrial engineering before working in industry. He returned to Texas A&M to earn his doctorate in interdisciplinary engineering and graduated in 2006.

Benden joined Texas A&M in 2008 as a faculty member and the Ergonomics Center’s co-director. In 2013, he became the director of the center, which uses cutting-edge research, education, and outreach to provide expertise to help partners solve highly technical and complex health and safety problems. The center’s services include safety and ergonomic assessments, process development, implementation and evaluation, ergonomic designs and interventions, workplace assessments, experienced and professional expert witnesses, product validation and continuing education.

Working at the university allows Benden to work outside of his “lane” and work in interdisciplinary projects in areas such as construction, automotives, digital humans and physical furnishings. He’s also been able to hone his entrepreneurial side as a founder of Positive Motion LLC, Stand2Learn LLC, Wellbeing Code LLC and Humanate Digital LLC.

A deep curiosity about innovation

Benden, who is actively involved in Texas A&M’s inventors’ group, enjoys thinking deeply about the foundational aspects of innovation.

“I’ve always wondered about this with students—is innovation something you can teach or is it a personality trait that people are born with?” he said. “I think it’s a little bit of both. You can certainly point to young children who have a curiosity or hunger for knowledge, or a desire to change or improve and make things better.”

He also embraces the importance of nurture in creating innovators, pointing out that children often lose their curiosity as they grow up. “Those who maintain and nurture their curiosity are called inventors as adults,” he explained.

However, he says innovation is not completely lost among those who have lost the spark. “When you’re given the opportunity to be exposed to people who problem-solve, ideate and work on inventive design, you can learn those techniques and process, and approach things from that standpoint of being open-minded,” Benden said.

The inventor also believes that while necessity will always be the mother of invention, nuisance is often the father. “When something is really annoying, doesn’t work or doesn’t go a certain way, that factors into someone deciding to create or change something,” he said.

Benden stressed that innovation doesn’t happen overnight. “You need time and failure in order to design and improve something,” he said. “A lot of folks are hard-wired to say, ‘This isn’t fun’ or, ‘It’s not working.’ But a lot of us are stubborn and like to stick with it—so that persistence is part of the constitution of inventors who have products that get to market and are patented or commercialized.”

He’s found that it takes many years to move from the first generation of an invention to commercialization—and it can take another six to 10 years before the product makes it to market.

“The lifecycle and process involved are dramatically lengthier for these types of things than they are for the typical creative enterprise that faculty members are measured and evaluated on, which is publication,” he said. “That’s why there are fewer people who get involved in innovation, because it is not something that you can do for a few months and get good at or be known for. You need years—if not decades—of time on task to set things in motion in that direction. It’s a long marathon, not a sprint.”

To that end, he hopes to encourage more Texas A&M faculty and students to explore innovation and commercialization in the future. “We always hear the saying about calling an Aggie ‘the boss,’ but I’d like to see ‘owner’ and ‘boss’ get equal billing,” Benden explained. “By getting involved in commercialization, Aggies can become owners.”

The next level of innovation

Benden also is exploring how he can integrate the latest tools and technologies into his inventions. For example, he is incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into his work as chief technology officer of Humanate Digital, a start-up company in College Station, Texas.

The company is utilizing AI to create digital humans that will support the workflow processes at health care clinics. These types of technologies can serve as an empathetic avatar that listens to content and then helps clients with non-clinical issues such as payments, patient history and vitals.

These digital humans are one way to offset health care’s significant and ongoing labor shortages, which are especially prevalent in rural areas. “These types of jobs, which are often not well paid, are hard to fill, so this is a sweet spot for utilizing digital humans,” Benden said.

Similarly, Benden believes that AI will increasingly inform the field of ergonomics. “As humans, we struggle with the vigilance needed to monitor our bodies and actions. We get bored, distracted and tired so we have limitations,” he said. “Machines are really good about staying on task because when you program them to do a certain thing, they’ll continue to do it until told to do something else. Machines and AI are really good at detecting the conditions that lead to injury and illness—and because of recent advancements, are helping us figure out solutions for workarounds that can protect a worker’s health.”

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