David Bradin is a long time InnoCentive Solver, winning one of our first Challenges in 2002, where the Seeker was looking for an efficient synthetic route to BTCA. David is a wonderful example of a Solver experiencing a "flash of insight" moment, solving a Challenge almost out of the blue. As he says below, "It took me more time to register as a Solver than it took to win the Challenge."
In 1998, I worked with a patent law firm that represented Eli Lilly, and wrote several patent applications for them as outside counsel. When I read in Chemical and Engineering News that Eli Lilly was spinning off InnoCentive, I had to check out the web site. While on the site, I scrolled down the list of problems, and saw one where the answer immediately popped into my head, based on a prior experience I had as a chemist before going to law school.
Back then, I was working as a process development chemist. I was involved in the large scale synthesis of a severe lachrymator (i.e., tear gas), and when my synthesis was scaled from the bench scale to the 1000 gallon scale, one of the operators forgot to turn on the cooling tower. The reactor overheated, and produced a by-product that caused the tear gas to go off-spec. With 1000 gallons of tear gas in the reactor, I had to find a way to identify and remove the impurities. This took the better part of four days, during which time I characterized the impurities, determined how they were formed and what properties they had, and tried about every possible way to remove them. I ended up sleeping on my desk a few nights, getting very little sleep over a four day period. Eventually, we improved the purity enough that we were able to sell the compound.
That Friday, I was supposed to go to a Grateful Dead concert with my then girlfriend and some friends of mine from grad school. My friends had the tickets and were in a separate car, which my girlfriend and I were to follow. My girlfriend was driving, and I fell fast asleep, only to wake up after my girlfriend lost sight of my friend with the tickets. I never ended up seeing the Dead. In any event, I’ve never forgotten the chemistry that resulted from the unfortunate side reaction. So, when I saw the InnoCentive Challenge, I did a retrosynthetic analysis of the compound at issue, and quickly realized that it could be made using a reaction that few chemists know about, but that I would never forget.
It actually took me more time to register as a Solver than it took to win the Challenge. I still recall receiving three e-mails from InnoCentive on a Sunday, advising me that I had won the Innocentive Challenge. My wife and I had just shopped for a new kitchen floor, and the estimated cost was, almost to the penny, the amount of the InnoCentive award. We’ve since moved, but always referred to our kitchen floor as our InnoCentive floor.
I’ve had some amazing experiences as a Solver. Perhaps because I’m not a full-time practicing chemist, I’ve been interviewed by some of my favorite magazines, newspapers, and journals, including MIT Technology Review, Chemical and Engineering News, Forbes, Business Week, Business 2.0, and the Boston Globe, to name a few. I’ve had people I know tell me that they also tried to solve the same Challenge, or that they’ve tried to solve other Challenges, and a few clients have approached me to say that they’ve read that I won the Challenge. I was interviewed by Margot Adler on NPR, and a lot of my family, friends, and clients heard the interview. I was invited to give a lecture on Crowdsourcing at IMD, one of Europe’s leading business schools in Lausanne, Switzerland. A while back, I was in a book store and saw a book entitled “We are smarter than me.” The title suggested that the book had a crowdsourcing theme, so I looked for InnoCentive in the glossary, and, sure enough, InnoCentive was mentioned. I flipped to the appropriate page, and got to see my story in print. Needless to say, my experiences with InnoCentive have been very rewarding, personally as well as financially.
In my profession, I’ve seen that there are two types of patent lawyers – lawyers who happen to have a science background, and scientists who happen to have a law background. I consider myself the latter. This is part of the reason I really enjoy looking at the InnoCentive Challenges. Although I haven’t submitted a putative solution in a while, I have scoured the Challenges for others where I might have a “flash of insight.” I still read up on chemistry, and trying to solve the InnoCentive Challenges makes me feel like a chemist again. I’m sure that sounds a bit corny, but it’s true.
In addition to my full time patent law practice at Intellectual Property Technology Law, I also founded a biofuel company, Maverick Biofuels. At Maverick, we are trying to address problems of a different sort – how to create biofuel without adversely affecting the food supply. Some approaches involve the conversion of cellulosic biomass to syngas, and the subsequent conversion of the syngas to alcohols such as methanol and ethanol. I observed that there were several limitations associated with this approach, including the extremely high pressure, the extremely low syngas conversion per pass through the catalyst bed, and the production of a low energy, methanol-rich biofuel. Maverick’s solution involves initially converting syngas to low molecular olefins using Fischer-Tropsch olefin synthesis, and using olefin hydration to form a mixture of low molecular weight alcohols. The initial olefin production step is known to proceed with high syngas conversion, offering a distinct advantage over direct syngas to alcohol chemistry. Further, by producing an olefin intermediate, the resulting biofuel will have at least two carbons (i.e., no methanol). Maverick Biofuels (www.maverickbiofuels.net) is currently trying to raise funds to build a pilot plant in North Carolina, and several chemical engineers with significant expertise in this area have expressed their belief that Maverick’s approach overcomes many of the limitations of the direct syngas-to-alcohol chemistry.