I recently solved a Challenge about milkshakes that seemingly had nothing to do with my day job working as a postdoc in marine science at the University of Georgia.
I’m a biological oceanographer by training, but the Challenge I solved was about iron and beverage discoloration. During my PhD at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/MIT, I studied how marine microbes interact with natural iron binding chemicals called siderophores. When I read the detailed description of the problem, I realized that it was essentially another case of an iron complexation reaction that occurs naturally in the ocean. Almost immediately, I had a few ideas. I ran through some of the kinetic equations and did a bit of kitchen chemistry, and after a long weekend, I had come up with a solution to the problem.
I read about InnoCentive on Nature.com a few years back and signed up to receive emails about Challenges. All of the problems don’t catch my eye, but occasionally, there will be a problem that I quickly have an idea about. I’m always dreaming up new products or ways to improve things. If you have that kind of personality, ideas (some good, some bad) come all the time, but of course you can’t pursue most of them. It can take years to pursue an idea academically or start a company based on an idea. InnoCentive is great because it allows anyone to invest a little bit of time writing up the sort of ideas that come to them all the time.
I have a long-term goal to build simple devices that can describe microbial communities remotely and send that ecological information to a web browser anywhere. As a spinout of that work, I’ve built a user-friendly lab freezer monitor that I’m trying to commercialize. Developing a product is a very different process; the biggest challenge is not solving a problem but making sure you are solving the right problem. With InnoCentive Challenges, the problem has already been found, I just focus on finding an answer. It’s fun to have an outlet to apply my knowledge in unexpected ways. My training in one field brought a fresh perspective to a problem in another field; the ability of open innovation to borrow ideas from other fields was certainly an advantage in solving this Challenge.