Solver Stories: Doug Corrigan

// Louise Leone // Apr 27, 2021

My name is Doug Corrigan - “The reason that there is a challenge in the first place is because there are already experts who have not been able to solve the challenge. If it was easily solved by subject matter experts in that field, it wouldn’t have become a challenge. “solver_8

I’ve been interested in science since my childhood. I followed this passion as I grew older and I now have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a master’s in Engineering, and a bachelor’s in engineering physics with a concentration in electrical engineering.

As a NASA Graduate Fellow, I worked with NASA on a series of microgravity research studies that flew aboard the Space Shuttle, as well as with the Department of Energy doing research on new materials. After this, I switched into the life sciences and became involved in developing novel drug-discovery tools.  From there, I became involved in the consulting industry to help bring new innovative materials and technologies to market. As a hobby, I enjoy composing piano music.

If I recall correctly, a friend had mentioned the crowdsourcing approach to me, which prompted me to look in to it more. I didn’t realize this business model existed at the time, but it thoroughly intrigued my sense of creativity and desire to develop innovative solutions to difficult problems. I believe that one of the first challenges that I entered and won was based on a design for the next generation digital camera.

I thoroughly enjoy working on developing creative ideas and exercising my brain, so the challenges are a hobby that I enjoy. I love learning, and the problems always involve a substantial period of learning a new field of science or technology. Because I like learning new information, I typically have more success and enjoyment from challenges that are outside of my comfort zone or area of expertise. I also believe this initial naivety is more amenable to developing an “outside-the-box” solution. Deep domain experts in a given field have difficulty discovering innovative solutions due to ingrained presuppositions, and so someone with a “blank slate” is not restricted by those same theoretical or mental constraints. That’s the beauty of open innovation whereby anyone from any discipline could be the person that solves an impossible challenge.

When submitting proposals to challenges, the key is to justify your solution. Your solution may have never been tested in real life, but you need to convince others that your solution has a real chance of working. To do this, you need to dive deep into the scientific literature and into scientific theory. For example, in the 3D glass printing example, I didn’t simply claim, “print the glass from the gas phase using lasers.” I literally worked out all of the gas-phase chemistry and optical physics in detail. You need to know the science in great depth, and you should be able to communicate those principles to someone who is not familiar with those concepts.

If it is a field of science or technology, you’re not familiar with, you should first become familiar with this field through self-teaching. As there is a deadline to these challenges, you need to learn how to learn, fast. You will need a strong theoretical framework to build from. After you have a good mastery of the science, you should lay out the technical details of how the solution will work, and why it will work. I think many solutions fail because the Solver doesn’t provide that level of theoretical framework to convince someone that the solution can be practically implemented. In all of my solutions that seemed “radical”, I always provided an in-depth technical discussion that walked the reviewer through the science step-by-step. After reviewing this justification, the reviewer was hopefully convinced it would work. I strive to discover a technically justifiable pathway based on real science that proves the solution will work every time. Even if I had a potential solution, if I couldn’t develop a convincing scientific theory as to how the device would work, I would abandon the concept and move on to something else.

A solution needs to be “innovative”. Innovation is combining technologies and scientific principles together in a unique way that hasn’t been implemented before. This is where creativity comes in. The more that you can expand your knowledge base to be cross-disciplinary, the broader your tool kit will be for pulling the necessary pieces together. I think that more creative solutions come from people who understand many different fields of science and technology. For example, the answer to a question about how to produce a laboratory model for the kidney may exist somewhere in the field of semiconductor physics.  The question is then, “how well can you connect the dots from different fields?” But if you have no dots to connect, then you have nothing.

My key piece of advice is to learn everything you can, from every discipline that you can, even if it’s not in your area of expertise. The reason that there is a challenge in the first place is because there are already experts who have not been able to solve the challenge. If it was easily solved by subject matter experts in that field, it wouldn’t have become a challenge. Therefore, you need to get outside of your field of expertise.

An interesting challenge that comes to mind is a new type of carpet cleaner. I had absolutely no knowledge about carpet cleaners other than the fact that I despised them. However, after some research and brainstorming, I was able to develop a concept for a much more efficient and effective carpet cleaner based on design theory for rocket engine nozzles. I borrowed an innovative manufacturing concept used in the fiber-optic industry to develop a solution on how to produce a long-range nano-ordered magnetic material in high throughput over large macroscopic distances. I believe the best solutions come from completely unrelated fields.

My favorite challenges are the ones that initially seem absolutely unfeasible. If you read the initial challenge and you mumble to yourself, “good luck with that, because that’s impossible!”, then that’s the kind of challenge I want to work on. These impossible challenges make you stretch your knowledge and question why these limitations exist. Once you isolate the barriers, you can start finding ways to circumvent those barriers. As an example, one challenge involved developing new ways of producing glass at room temperature. After I isolated the barriers, I was able to devise a solution that was based on 3D printing glass from the gas phase (instead of the liquid phase) using lasers. I think this was one of my favorite challenges to work on.

My last piece of advice is to not be afraid. If you are out of your comfort zone, this is where you will probably find the most success. Therefore, you should not be afraid to attempt solving challenges that you feel unknowledgeable about. The worst that could happen is that you learn about a new field. Remember, if the experts could solve the problem, then it wouldn’t be a challenge. Your “non-expertise” is what is needed!

Extract from our book One Smart Crowd  - How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.

Topics: Solver Stories

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