Solver Stories: Nikolay Barashkov

// Louise Leone // Apr 27, 2021

My name is Nikolay Barashkov - “I am not sure that one should really speak of "failures" just because some proposals are not rewarded. Over the years, several dozens of my solutions have come short of winning and yet, from my personal experience, I can conclude that there is always something positive in such types of ‘failure’.”solver_10

I am a scientist with 40 years of experience in polymer chemistry, photochemistry, photophysics and nanotechnology. I got my PhD in Moscow, Russia and I then moved to the US where I held positions in laboratories and universities. I'm currently a Director of R&D, however I’ve held numerous senior positions in R&D Departments of various industrial companies. To date I have co-written eight books (3 of which are published in English, and 5 in Russian), I have over one hundred fifty peer-reviewed papers, and hold 30 Russian, European and US Patents.

I discovered the concept of challenge prizes over 15 years ago and after browsing through the descriptions of the different innovation calls, I immediately found a challenge of interest to me. After some literature search and a fair amount of experimental work during my spare time, my original and excellent (I thought so anyway) solution was complete. I submitted it before the deadline, started to wait and… nothing happened. Months later I got a reply informing me that my solution had not been selected for the award.

Now when I look back, I am glad that this first unsuccessful attempt did not stop me from trying. To be completely honest, I had not gone back to the website for almost two years. I finally got past my initial disappointment, and submitted not one, but two more solutions. I am pleased to say that one of them, namely "Color Changing Ingredient," was a winner!

After a long career in chemical science and having worked both in academia and industry, I must confess that creative research is my passion and my addiction. Because of this, mundane everyday activities never manage to occupy my full attention. In fact, I am constantly thinking about professional challenges and consider my interaction with the platform a hobby which is closely related to my professional calling. This hobby is particularly stimulating when it gets me involved in things outside of my comfort zone. For me, a good challenge is the one which broadens your horizons. They say that “it is never too late to learn” and my experience with open innovation and crowdsourcing shows that this old saying is nothing but truth.

My favorite challenge was where a company wanted to create something unusual: a device or material that would be sensitive to touch and change its color upon gentle touch with a human finger. This so-called mechano-chromic device should NOT require any power, and the changes in color should be reversible. Well, I consider myself an expert in luminescent materials. So, my approach to the challenge was based on the principle behind a simple well-known children’s toy called “Glow Slate.” It is a system of at least two plastic sheets. One of them is a transparent flexible polymer sheet containing fluorescent dye or finely dispersed pigment; and the second one is a dispersive opaque sheet, like coated paper boat stock, whose smooth surface is placed adjacent to first sheet. What makes “Glow State” work is the smoothness and “wetting” properties of the sheets. The change of color, or, more exactly, the appearance of a semi-permanent luminescent image may be created by applying pressure to the first sheet with a finger. The image is stable for minutes and even hours, and it can be easily erased by separating the sheets. My secret recipe was to add some chemical reagents to both sides of the “Glow Slate”. The effect of this addition lead to an interaction between the reagents. The interaction was slow enough to create a semi-permanent luminescent image but keep it “alive” for 4-5 seconds only. Within this period of time, a product of the reaction was able to separate the sides of the “Glow Slate” and the luminescent image would disappear. Then this image could be recreated by applying pressure to the surface of the modified luminescent sheet, and the cycle “appearance-disappearance” could be repeated again and again. So, while reaching this effect was not easy and the experiments required hours and hours of work in my garage temporarily converted to a testing laboratory, in the end the expectations of the company were met and my solution for this particular challenge was awarded.

For more than 12 years now, I have been invited to Kazakhstan annually to deliver university lectures to their Masters and PhD students on different topics related to polymer chemistry and nanotechnology. Whenever I come up against doubt or cynicism from my students, I always remind them of my experiences, bringing to light some of the challenges facing companies through the open innovation platform. I find that explaining some of these complex problems and going through my developed solutions in detail to be a way of demonstrating that scientific knowledge can be used to solve real world business problems.

Some of my friends, who know how much time and effort I put into projects submissions, tend to say to me: “You are not so young anymore. Why do you need to work so much? Yes, you are monetarily compensated but is the compensation worth the days and weeks of hard work over many weekends and holidays? Besides, why do you continue to go to Kazakhstan with your lectures? There are many younger knowledgeable scientists who can do it instead of you.” I think to myself, I have things to accomplish and recite those lines from Robert Frost:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

To date I've won 31 challenges and earned a decent amount of money. Nobody disagrees that money is important, but what may be even more important for me is the thrill of knowing that it was my idea that helped with a specific business problem. I am positive that all successful solvers can relate to the extraordinary feeling of having succeeded where all others failed.

What’s more, I am not sure that one should really speak of "failures" just because some proposals are not rewarded. Over the years, several dozens of my solutions have come short of winning and yet, from my personal experience, I can conclude that there is always something positive in such types of "failure”. From my perspective, solutions that do not receive awards are officially free from the obligations related to the intellectual property rights that otherwise would have been assigned to the company. For example, if I wish to, I can protect the research in my submission by applying for my own patents. I have submitted to the US Patent Office at least six provisional patents based on "unsuccessful" solutions. All of them were based on my rejected submissions and another one has recently been commercialized by my colleagues in Kazakhstan. In this respect, I am reminded of some lines from a Russian poet Nikolay Dorizo:

"I have lost hundred treasures and

Hundred hopes,

Nevertheless maybe all my losses

Are my major findings…"

I could not agree more with this poem. Based on my experience, I can give the following advice to anyone thinking of participating in a crowdsourcing prize challenge: Go for it, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t win. Try to prepare another submission and think about how your rejected solution could be implemented somewhere else.

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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