Making a difference in people’s quality of life
When Bill Isaacson took the stage in Ann Nicole Nelson Hall last April 2010, he saw before him 900 seats filled with excited fifth- and sixth-graders. The emerging entrepreneurs had come to Minot State University to share their inventions, learn from each other and gain insight from old pros like him.
Looking into their eager faces, it occurred to Isaacson that as a child he’d been much like them. He’d even sat in the same auditorium, although his purpose for being there was waiting for his mother to practice her organ lessons. Isaacson mused that while these Marketplace for Kids attendees might be smarter than he was at their ages, even then he knew he wanted to invent things. And invent he did.
Isaacson filed for his first patent in 1963 as a graduate student at Montana State University. He submitted his most recent application in 2010. During his 32-plus-year career with 3M in St. Paul, Minn., Isaacson helped transform many ideas into patents and marketable products and earned a reputation as one of the company’s top intrapreneurs.
Of all the ideas Isaacson nurtured at 3M - extended-wear breathable contact lenses, an artificial cornea, surgical glue and more - the one that means the most to him is his work on multifocal intraocular lenses.
"At the time, single-vision lenses were being implanted to improve the vision of cataract patients. I came up with the idea of using diffractive optics as a means of creating lenses with multiple focal points," Isaacson said.
Among the patients to receive the new lens during FDA testing was Isaacson’s mother, Helen.
"My mother was 84. She had cataracts in her eyes and poor vision," Isaacson said. "My father was in the nursing home. Her life was going downhill, but when Dr. Darrell Williams in Minot implanted her multifocal intraocular lenses, it changed her life. She started enjoying life again. She started watercolor painting again. To have made a significant difference in the quality of the last five years of my mother’s life was the best thing I could have ever done and my proudest accomplishment."
Oil was first interest
Things could have turned out much differently had Isaacson pursued his early career goals. It was natural for Isaacson, who grew up one block from campus, to decide to attend Minot State University. In the fall of 1956, he was one of 100 students to enroll in a two-year, pre-engineering program instituted to aid the United States’ great "space race" with Russia.
At the end of the two years, only 15 remained in the program. One was Isaacson, who managed to pass the slide rule course, take as many as 27 credits a quarter, and play clarinet and saxophone with a 10-piece dance band called the Collegiates.
A Minot State field trip to the Cenex oil refinery in Laurel, Mont., inspired him to study chemical engineering at Montana State University. Music helped pay his way in Bozeman, too, where the Playboys quartet often played at fraternity and sorority functions. Isaacson earned his bachelor’s degree in 1960 and his doctorate in 1963. He then began his career at 3M.
Isaacson’s uncanny ability to recognize new business opportunities led 3M to name him venture director, a title held by few in the company’s history. "I didn’t think I was a great inventor," Isaacson said, "but I had a unique ability to examine an idea and - in a ‘blinding glimpse of the obvious’ - see how it could be turned into a product or business opportunity."
Frequent trips to North Dakota in the mid 1980s to visit his aging parents rekindled Isaacson’s love for the state as well as his interest in flying, which he learned to do his sophomore year at Minot State.
Isaacson retired to Stanley in 1996 but continued to share his expertise on intrapreneurship around the globe. Between 1998 and 2002, he served on the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, providing leadership as vice president and president.
But, as of Jan. 1 of this year, Isaacson has decided to do more things for himself, like flying his vintage 1946 Aeronca Champ, fishing Lake Sakakawea and hunting. If he does anything professionally, he says it will likely be to help Minot State University develop its new Severson Entrepreneurship Academy.
"I love being able to give back by mentoring young entrepreneurs and supporting the academy. Being an entrepreneur is an exciting way of life and can be personally very rewarding," Isaacson said. "Entrepreneurship is a way to recharge North Dakota’s economy. It’s a way to create jobs, and it’s a way to create growth.
"I returned to my roots because there is a legacy here, an entrepreneurial spirit - shared by people like my parents and grandparents - that I’m very proud of."
- Cathy Jelsing