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Photos courtesy Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, Georgia Yazzie and Jay Neyens

The LugNuts, led by the joking, Justin Bieber-haired Harris, come across as confident, funny and charismatic — qualities missing from brainiacs of previous generations.

The LugNuts' Epi-Watch, an adaptation of the widely used EpiPen epinephrine auto injector used to treat allergic reactions, is in the running for a $20,000 prize in the 2011 FIRST Lego League Global Innovation Award.

In eighth grade, Garrett Yazzie created a solar heater out of a junked 1967 Pontiac radiator and a pile of aluminum soda cans, principally to help his single mom warm the family's hogan, which lacked running water and heat.

After Yazzie's working prototype placed seventh among 40 elite finalists in the Discovery Channel Young Science Challenge, NASA heralded him the "Junk Yard Genius" in its educators' magazine, and PC World picked him as one of its "10 Overachievers Under 21."

Graduation day: Georgia Yazzie, a blue-collar heavy-equipment operator, had always steered her "little inventor" away from manual labor. "So now I'm using power tools and learning construction skills," Garrett says, with an affectionate laugh. "I guess I wanted to be more like her."

Glendale twins Zachary and Joshua Neyens came up with the idea for their invention while playing superhero in their dad's garage. Their father, Jay Neyens, patented the idea for their stretchable car covers and is now selling them at off-road vehicle shows.

Professional entertainer Jay Neyens has made Buggie Bags his main gig, but says Zach (left) and Josh (right) call the shots. "That whole bag is designed by them," he insists.

Published by Times Publications, 3/2/2011

The LugNuts are six middle-school students with their eyes on the X Prize, a prestigious science award that could win the boys, all no older than 12, a $20,000 purse to get their invention patented and brought to market.

They’re already stars at Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, an accelerated school where the annual science fair is practically an Olympic event, and they have become surprisingly comfortable making the rounds on the local morning news shows. “Have you seen them on TV?” says science teacher Kimberly Merlene, who assisted them on their project, a clever twist on the EpiPen medicine dispenser called the Epi-Watch. “They’re naturals!”

Garrett Yazzie is a former middle-school science whiz whose handmade solar heater garnered awards and television fame, too, but the experience ultimately left the young Navajo with a hard education in the business of funding innovation. After seeing his green-energy ideas writ large in the form of a new house for his mom, courtesy of the ABC-TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, he’s seen the rushed work go bad, and has spent more time haggling with irresponsible alternative-energy contractors than developing his own innovative solutions. He’s now in college, studying construction technology — although his mother would like him to take more business courses. “You have to know both,” says Georgia Yazzie, “science and business.”

And Glendale twins Joshua and Zachary Neyens are unassuming 8-year-old boys whose offhand comments about using their Superman capes as a car cover sparked a business venture that dad Jay has been dutifully crediting to them, boosting them as America’s next entrepreneurial prodigies. “This is Oprah stuff!” he enthuses. All the while, the boys themselves appear content simply playing superheroes.

For smart young whiz kids, the future can look brighter than ever. Big money science competitions like the X Prize have grown in recent years, as corporations have realized the savings in farming innovative ideas from the nation’s pool of K-12 science-fair brainiacs over growing their own R&D departments. The Google Lunar X Prize, for example, pays $30 million to the first team that can land a robot on the moon to transmit pictures and video back to Earth, and has drawn participants from 17 nations on four continents.

But pressures — from hovering parents to the harsh economic realities of making a dream into a viable product — can also take their toll on these young Thomas Edisons. Melissa Rose, a Scottsdale entrepreneur and subcommittee member on the National Science Board’s STEM program fostering young science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) innovators, says many kids are natural inventors, but lack the entrepreneurial skills to take their ideas to the next level.

“I read an article about art students who had discovered their passion and had decided what their careers would be,” Rose says. “But by the time they got out of college, they didn’t know how to monetize their art. And so consequentially they had to take other jobs to pay the rent and were never able to have a career in the field they were passionate about. All because they didn’t know the business part.”

Rose, who markets a workbook for young entrepreneurs called Biz-In-A-Box, says the same thing often happens with gifted young inventors. “It’s a shame, because kids are naturally creative and risk-takers,” she says. “They don’t know what they ‘can’t do’ yet. And that’s the perfect time for them to be learning entrepreneurship.”

Hey hey, they’re the LugNuts!

The LugNuts are poised to become Arizona’s next science superstars.

Their school project, the Epi-Watch, an adaptation of the widely used EpiPen epinephrine auto injector used to treat allergic reactions, is in the running for the 2011 FIRST Lego League Global Innovation Award, a high-stakes, high-profile science competition funded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, Lego and the X Prize Foundation, a 15-year-old nonprofit organization that works with philanthropists and corporations to rouse technological “revolution through incentivized competition.”

If the students, five friends from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies and one younger brother from Red Mountain Ranch Elementary, take the prize, they’ll win $20,000 toward getting the invention patented, creating a prototype and bringing a product to market.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” says Kimberly Merlene, who teaches 5th and 6th grade science at Mesa Academy. Like other teachers, she’s noticed an increase in contests like this one for stimulating innovation. “We’ve also participated in the Honeywell Fiesta Bowl Aerospace Challenge, which doesn’t feature a cash prize, but the winning team gets a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Some of our kids here have also won the Ask a Scientist competition, we have kids who have been sent to the JASON Project. There are all kinds of scientific things now for our bright little nerds!” she adds with a laugh.

Indeed, according to a study conducted in 2009 by McKinsey & Co., the use of incentive prizes to spur innovation has more than tripled over the past decade, with most of the expansion going toward the areas of science, engineering, space and aviation and the environment. The corporations and philanthropies that finance the contests benefit by tapping into a large hive of potential problem solvers, whose inventions often address needs even a well-staffed research department might miss.

The LugNuts’ Epi-Watch, for example, was conceived by the middle-school pals to solve a problem one of their members, Evin Harris, who’s allergic to peanuts, had with the EpiPen he carried to administer epinephrine shots each time he came in contact with peanut butter in the lunchroom. Harris would often misplace the pen, so his friends Brigham Blackhurst, Nicholas Ardavin, Varun Srinivasan and Jacob Wilcox, along with Evin’s younger brother Braxton, devised a way to store the medication and needle in a wristwatch, and even added a GPS alert to notify nearby hospitals in the event of an allergy attack.

For the kids, competitions like the X Prize have helped make science geeks almost as cool around school as the jocks. On their local TV-news appearances, the LugNuts, led by the joking, Justin Bieber-haired Harris, come across as confident, funny and charismatic — qualities missing from brainiacs of previous generations, before the bookish had their own bowl games.

“The whole school has rallied behind them,” says Merlene, reporting that classmates have festooned their Facebook pages with links to the Global Innovation Award’s voting site, where the LugNuts recently cracked the top 25. Adds school registrar Nancy Johnson, flummoxed in her attempt to round the team up on science-fair day, “They’re pretty popular little guys!”

After the Spotlight

Garrett Yazzie has already rode the waves of junior genius stardom, and offers sage advice to up-and-coming whiz kids.

“Expect the unexpected,” he says. “With all my accomplishments, I never really planned it out.”

Given that he was once pegged as the Navajo nation’s next Bill Gates, few would have planned that Yazzie, now 20, would pick as his major the more grounded field of construction technology. “I’ve never really been around power tools,” explains Yazzie, adding that his mother, a blue-collar heavy-equipment operator who wished better for her son and daughter, had always steered her “little inventor” away from manual labor, even sending him off to Michigan in order to attend a prestigious prep school.

“She pushed me into books, and not into the more manly stuff,” says Yazzie, with an affectionate laugh. “So now I’m using power tools and learning construction skills. I guess I wanted to be more like her.”

Five years ago, as an eighth grader at Piñon Middle School on the Navajo Reservation in northeast Arizona, Yazzie created a solar heater out of a junked 1967 Pontiac radiator and a pile of aluminum soda cans, principally to help his single mom warm the family’s hogan, which lacked running water and heat. His working prototype placed seventh among 40 elite finalists in the Discovery Channel Young Science Challenge, and the scientific community took note. NASA heralded him the “Junk Yard Genius” in its educators’ magazine. PC World picked him as one of its “10 Overachievers Under 21.”

Yazzie’s compelling story eventually caught the attention of the ABC-TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which built the family the program’s first “100 percent green” house, including eco-friendly features like solar panels and wind turbines in tribute to Garrett’s resourcefulness and the Native respect for the Earth. He vividly remembers his “Move That Bus!” moment, when he first got a glimpse of the spacious house, crowned with 800 square feet of custom solar collectors and surrounded by a rainwater-collecting irrigation system feeding a lush greenhouse.

“They took my projects, my ideas, and then took them ten steps higher,” he says, still grateful to the show for having given his mom the dream house he envisioned.

Soon after the one-year warranty expired on the wind turbine, however, it broke. “It wasn’t built for our dusty environment,” Yazzie says. And even the heat generated by the 20 solar panels couldn’t compete with the cold air leaking into the sprawling house from the incomplete insulation and duct work rushed to meet the show’s customary five-day deadline. To make matters worse, Piñon’s tribal utility company stopped crediting the surplus electricity produced by the house’s photovoltaic solar panels, the federally-mandated bonus most offered as an incentive to go green.

The Yazzies have been helped with the necessary repairs by Mark Snyder, a California contractor used on the show who stuck with the family after most moved on, mostly because Snyder identified with Garrett. “I was a young inventor, too,” Snyder says.

But although Yazzie continues to invent — he followed up his first Discovery Channel award with another the next year for a bicycle-powered water wheel — he’s no longer certain about pursuing alternative-energy design as a career.

“Right now, I’m just doing a little bit of everything,” says Yazzie, now a freshman at Diné College in Shiprock, NM, “studying construction and also health and education and fitness. I want to be a well-rounded person.” He says he’s had job offers from solar-panel companies and the like, but nothing attractive enough to steer him away from school. After his certification, Yazzie says he may move to Phoenix to become an X-ray technician.

“I try not to really plan the future anymore,” he says. “I just go day by day.”

Golden Boys

Zachary Neyens says he and his twin brother, Joshua, came up with the idea for their invention when, while playing superheroes in dad’s garage two years ago, they ripped their capes and asked dad if they could go back to Joanne’s Fabrics and buy some more material. Employing a classic kids’ ploy, Zachary says Joshua suggested dad could benefit from the purchase, too, by using some of the same fabric to cover the dune buggy he was working on.

“Daddy said, ‘Hmm, you got a point there!’” Zachary recalls. “Then I was like, ‘We could make ‘em in cool colors!’ And he was like, ‘Yep!’”

The boys, now third graders at Arrowhead Elementary in Glendale, toss off the exchange as no big deal — and indeed, compared with Yazzie’s and the LugNuts’ inventions, theirs is decidedly kid’s play.

But single dad Jay Neyens, a professional entertainer by trade, decided to run with their flash of genius, logging onto LegalZoom.com to get a patent for the stretchable covers the three named the “Buggie Bag” and finding an L.A. manufacturer to do some limited runs, which the guys have been selling at off-road vehicle shows and local retailers like I.F. Motorsports. Currently Neyens is negotiating a deal with leading wetsuit manufacturer Body Glove to distribute between 30 to 50,000 units of the product, which he says is more malleable than any currently available cover and can also fit golf carts, snowmobiles and hang gliders.

Though the boys themselves are unclear which of them is the CEO — “I’m the boss, I make all the decisions,” says Joshua, to which Zachary replies, “I collect the cash and I get to pick the colors” — Jay has clearly gone out of his way to share the driving seat with his sons.

“That whole bag is designed by them,” he insists. “Even that drawstring cord we use at the bottom. I asked them, ‘How do you want the bottom to be?’ And Josh said, ‘Oh, like on my shorts, Daddy.’ And boom! We had the idea for the drawstring.”

Neyens endearingly oversells his sons’ creation, even crediting the enterprise with bringing him a little closer with his ex-wife, who now designs the Buggie Bags website.

“In a weird way, this business weaves our family together,” Neyens says. “And the boys know that. They know that mom and dad are there for their success, and that’s our No. 1 goal.”

Of course, it also helps the Neyenses to have their adorable twins as the corporate figure heads, as Jay found out during talks with Body Glove’s founders — twin brothers Bill and Bob Meistrell, who started the now $10 million-per-year watersports brand when they were only 12 years old. The Meistrells liked the product, but they were particularly enthralled with its backstory, and how it mirrored their own.

“That is a company that was also started by twin boys 55 years ago,” says Neyens. “So for that company to be reaching out to my twin boys, who are now the youngest twin inventors in the United States – I mean, what a great story!”

Whatever their role in the business may be, seeing dad rally behind their ideas and empower them in the decision-making process has already broadened Joshua’s and Zachary’s ideas of what they can achieve. That’s precisely the kind of thinking Melissa Rose believes we need to encourage.

“The earlier kids grasp that entrepreneurial mindset, the better,” says the kids’ business mentor. “If we can start instilling this early on, there will be a huge increase in the number of young entrepreneurs that we actually produce. And isn’t that what the country’s banking on right now?”