I’m not your typical Solver, I represent a different side of the InnoCentive demographic. While many of the successful Solvers on the site have years of experience and expertise, and labs of their own to try out ideas, I have been growing up in science along with InnoCentive. I first heard about it when it launched and I was an undergraduate chemistry student at the University of St. Thomas. My research mentor, Dr. Tom Ippoliti, showed me the site and said “Look at this, isn’t it cool?” We’d been doing a lot of custom synthesis to supplement our research budget were always looking for interesting synthetic problems to solve. As an undergraduate, I found that most of the Challenges were over my head. The only solutions I came up with turned out to be the ones that were already in place, or specifically mentioned as not suitable. Which in some ways was encouraging—it was reassuring to know that at least I was learning to think along the right track.
I kept my eye on InnoCentive in graduate school, and a few years later I saw something that I felt like I might know a little bit about. I was synthesizing macrocyclic polyamines at the time, and a problem was posted asking for novel methods to make a certain cyclam derivative. An issue for a lowly graduate student was reduction to practice—grad students don’t exactly have the time or the resources to actually try the chemistry that is needed to demonstrate solutions to synthetic problems like that. Still, that became my first submitted solution, and although I didn’t win it (my solution was still very naïve and not efficient enough for industrial use, and I hadn’t been able to do any synthetic work on it, which the problem required) I received helpful critique and encouragement in the review of my solution.
As I moved into postdoctoral research at the University of Chicago and continued to develop more sophisticated skills and thinking process, I kept scanning new InnoCentive Challenges and started seeing more and more Challenges to which I felt I could contribute some actual expertise. However I was still hampered by the resources problem—my responsibilities were to my grant projects and my PIs who paid me, and it wasn’t right (or probably legal) to use lab resources for my own potential financial gain.
My mind was still my own though, and finally a Challenge came along that was right up my alley: a paper-only request that was about the exact kind of science I have been developing for my future research. It did not require transfer of intellectual property, and they seemed to just want some thoughtfully brainstormed ideas for different ways to think about making protein libraries. Since I already had thought out a lot of the details and had the appropriate references at hand, it wasn’t difficult for me to write it up as a solution. I was surprised and very excited to find out they liked it, and I won my first InnoCentive Challenge! As other Solvers have said, the money is great, but the real excitement is in the feeling of having contributed something useful that other people value.
I’m going to be starting a faculty position in the fall and I don’t envision myself become a full-time freelance consultant through InnoCentive as many Solvers have been able to do. But I love this site as a model for community problem solving that has options for thinkers at any level—even if you don’t have a lab, or are just starting out in science or engineering, it’s an excellent way to hone your critical thinking and creativity and hey, you just might get lucky and have somebody need your unique expertise someday, like I did!