They kept checking their email past 11:30 p.m. Thursday, wondering if something might change at the last minute. Then, word came.
Two University of South Florida inventors who had been invited to speak at the Smithsonian Institution on Sunday would indeed be staying home. A long-planned conference in Washington, D.C., had been canceled, another piece of fallout from the federal government's ongoing shutdown.
Merry Lynn Morris, a USF dance professor who invented a wheelchair for dancers called the Rolling Dance Chair, was scheduled to speak at the Innovation: Brainstorms, Big Ideas, and the Creative Future Conference. Organizers had tapped a lineup of big-name speakers, including the press secretary from NASA and the deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Alexei Novitzky, a USF graduate who invented the Brief-Skate, a hybrid skateboard-briefcase that holds your things while you skate, was also scheduled to appear at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. Novitzky has had interest from manufacturers, he says, and hopes to have 100,000 of his skateboards on the market by 2015.
"It's pretty much the highest honor to be going to the Smithsonian to present your invention," said Novitzky, 28. When he heard news of the shutdown, he held out hope — but not much.
"I thought there was a 1 percent chance I was still going," he said.
Earlier this year, Morris and Novitzky were invited to show their inventions at another Smithsonian expo. That event was canceled due to the federal government's sequestration. They were excited to be invited back for this weekend's event, only to have it canceled, too.
"It's kind of starting to get a little bit humorous and ironic," said Morris, 38. "Disappointment is true, but I do feel like it'll be rescheduled, so we'll look forward to the next time that we can plan for it, and it'll be even better."
Morris dreamed up the idea for a chair that could move with the user's body after years of caring for her disabled father, permanently injured in a car accident when Morris was 12.
She started designing the chair with USF's College of Engineering seven years ago. It has evolved from a stripped-down Segway into a sleek prototype that operates via smartphone. Morris hopes it will one day be used by dancers and anyone else who wants more freedom in a wheelchair.
Since her story appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in September, Morris has gotten letters from people around the globe.
"I've been so elated and inspired by the kind of feedback I've been getting all over the world," she said. "Different people, different dance studio owners, mixed-ability folks, executive directors of disability foundations, as well as these mothers of these children.
"My goodness. It's been a really nice feeling knowing there's definitely a need out there, and I'm not alone."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.