Geoff Deane, the Vice President and General Manager of Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, was interviewed for a recent feature by Christie Nicholson for SmartPlanet. Ms. Nicholson is a freelance science journalist who hosts the podcasts “60-Second Mind” and “60-Second Science” for Scientific American. In the interview, Geoff discusses some of the most exciting IV Lab projects and spinouts including Kymeta’s metamaterials antenna and our anti-Malaria efforts. Woven throughout the interview are some very interesting perspectives on the difference between innovation and invention, as well as IV Lab’s approach to problem solving. An innovator is someone who goes beyond merely coming up with a solution (invention), they take steps to implement it and use it to positive effect. Think of it as the difference between solving a problem for the mental satisfaction and solving a problem for a purpose. Our goal at IV Lab is to invent with intent – to solve problems for purposes. This goes hand in hand with the belief that ideas themselves have tangible value. An idea represents potential material improvement in the world, increased productivity, or new scientific discoveries. It is exactly that type of innovation that IV Lab hopes to encourage.
If the name “Eli Whitney” rings a bell, you might have read about him in your American history textbook. Most famous for his invention of the cotton gin, Whitney is often called “the father of American technology.” His inventions sparked great socioeconomic change in antebellum America for both the agricultural South and the industrial North.
Whitney was born in the winter of 1765 in Westborough, MA. As the son of a prosperous farmer, Whitney learned how to use his hands at an early age. After his mother died when he was eleven, the young boy had an even greater responsibility to be useful around the house. It is often said that Whitney’s greatest talent was noticing the problems in his environment and devising clever solutions to them. Case in point, Whitney began a nail manufacturing business out of his father’s workshop after realizing the high demand created by the ongoing Revolutionary War. He later moved on to making canes and ladies’ hatpins.
Whitney worked his way through college at Yale as a laborer and teacher, finally graduating in 1792 at the age of 27. While he hoped to study law, he found himself very short on funds and took a tutoring position in the South. Then, in one of those fortuitous events so common in great historical narratives, Whitney met Catherine Greene on the train to South Carolina. Greene was the widow of a war hero who had been granted a large plot of land for services rendered. She convinced Whitney to stay on her plantation in Georgia and read law.
Whitney immediately proved himself as a valuable asset at Mulberry Grove, inventing several novel devices to aid in domestic tasks. One day, Whitney overheard visitors to the plantation talking about the need for a machine to harvest the abundant short-staple cotton (automated processing of the long-staple cotton had been achieved in East India with the invention of the charka). Meanwhile, in the face of the declining price of tobacco, Mrs. Greene was desperate for a new cash crop to sustain the plantation. At the time, cotton was not seen as profitable due to the fact that a single “point” required ten hours of hand labor to process.
In later years, Whitney would tell a story about how he saw a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence, only to manage a few feathers. This was essentially the idea behind Whitney’s first cotton gin prototype (gin is short for engine). The machine consisted of a wooden drum with hooks that would grip the cotton and a hand-crank that would feed the cotton through a mesh and separate the seeds. Later, a rotating brush was added to clean the excess lint from the spikes.
There is considerable controversy as to the extent of Mrs. Greene’s involvement in this design. Specifically, Whitney’s first model used wooden teeth instead of wire hooks, and invariably jammed. It is believed that Greene was the one to suggest this modification even though she was never credited with such.
Whitney’s invention had an immediate impact on the Southern landscape. One gin could reliably produce an unprecedented 55 pounds of cleaned cotton per day. Cotton quickly became the U.S.’s largest export, jumping from 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million by 1810. The declining slave trade also experienced an enormous boost with the revitalization of the agricultural economy.
As for Whitney himself, he originally planned on establishing a monopoly over his invention by charging farmers two-fifths of their processed cotton to use his machine. Not surprisingly, this business model was not popular, and Whitney’s workshop was subsequently vandalized and his designs stolen. Although he had obtained a patent in 1794, patent law at the time stipulated that the burden of proof for infringement was on the inventor. As a result, Whitney’s cotton business collapsed in 1797 and the inventor found himself mired in expensive litigation. The only money he ever saw from his landmark invention was when South Carolina agreed to purchase the patent for $50,000 in 1802.
The failure of the cotton gin to be wildly profitable had a profound effect on Whitney. After Congress refused to renew his patent in 1807, he stated, “An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.” Whitney left the South for good and never filed another patent.
But this was not the end of Eli Whitney. In fact, his next endeavor proved to be far more financially rewarding than his first. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the American government began to look seriously at their military capacities. In particular, the government began issuing contracts for the production of muskets. Using his contacts as a Yale alumnus, Whitney obtained a contract for the manufacture of 10,000 to 15,000 guns in two years (Whitney took eight years to complete the order). This was a purely financial decision as Whitney had never made a gun in his life.
During this time, Whitney championed the burgeoning movement toward “interchangeable parts.” An ancient concept dating back to the Punic Wars, interchangeability in modern times was not achieved until late in Whitney’s own life. Nevertheless, he played an important role in popularizing the idea and advocating for it in Washington. Whitney is also credited as one of the first people to invent and utilize a milling machine in 1818. These innovations contributed to a golden age of manufacturing in America called the “armory practice”.
One of the great and tragic ironies of Whitney’s life is that while he endeavored to alleviate the burdens of the unskilled laborer through his inventions, his work ultimately perpetuated oppressive institutions, namely the slave trade and industrial labor. Whitney himself was very humane to his workers and even established a community in Whitneyville, Connecticut operated by a set of puritanical guidelines.
Whitney died on January 8, 1825 in New Haven after a protracted battle with prostate cancer. Even to his dying day, he continued to invent devices to mechanically ease his pain. Whitney left behind a widow, one Henrietta Edwards (the daughter of a powerful Democratic family), and four children.
A: I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with mechanical things. When I was four years old, my neighbor remodeled his house. In his front yard, he created what looked like a pile of junk to the casual observer. However, I found the pile fascinating. It wasn’t long before I had carefully assembled a large pile of wood scraps and other interesting objects. As I constructed my own ‘house’, the neighbor commented, “Mark, you’re going to be an engineer someday.”
As a child, I enjoyed tearing broken things apart, trying to fix them, and quite often failing at it. I ‘fixed’ plenty of lawn mowers, go-carts, mini-bikes, stereos, microwaves, clock radios, and toasters in the garage. After lots of attempts at ‘fixing’ things, eventually my repairs began to actually work. I see that childhood experience as foundational to my career as a mechanical and medical device engineer. Pursuing mechanical engineering in college and grad school was an easy choice for me.
My career in medical devices began when I joined Stryker Endoscopy in California, which was also in part a pursuit of my then-girlfriend-now-wife. After a great experience at Stryker, my wife and I moved to Seattle to start a family. I joined a start-up company, Archus Orthopedics, and began designing lumbar spine implants and instrumentation. While Archus suffered from the economic downturn of 2009, eventually closing its doors, Archus built an incredibly strong engineering team. A portion of that team now works at IV Lab.
Q: What skills do you bring to the Lab?
A: I bring medical device design experience to IV Lab, as well as a passion to invent and help solve complex problems. I bring experience working in Ethiopia and other African countries through volunteering with Blue Nile Children’s Organization, which works with primarily with orphans. The first project my wife, an obstetrician & gynecologist, and I volunteered for was to open a medical clinic in Ethiopia. We traveled to Ethiopia, where I focused on fixing and constructing medical equipment to open the clinic. We continue to volunteer with Blue Nile Children’s Organization in support of children in need.
I also bring a passion for helping other mechanical engineers and designers succeed. My role as Medical Devices and Mechanical Systems Group Manager allows me to provide guidance, clear roadblocks, and generally help support the efforts of mechanical engineering project leads and individual contributors.
Q: Of the projects you have worked on in your career, which one stands out in your mind?
A: Archus Orthopedics designed lumbar facet replacement implants and instrumentation. The first generation implant required a large incision during surgery. The company wanted to develop a minimally invasive technique to reduce that incision size. A big orthopedic conference was merely a few months away. To miss that opportunity would significantly impact the success of the overall start-up endeavor. The Directors and VP’s decided that a minimally invasive system couldn’t be done in time for the conference. However, I thought it could be done and developed a plan to do just that. I met with the VP of engineering and laid out my plan. After several quick turn design iterations in the machine shop, multiple design reviews and cadaver labs, and a trip outside the United States, we successfully implanted a minimally-invasive Total Facet Arthroplasty System. The excitement while facing seemingly insurmountable odds and the rush of energy upon achieving success was truly thrilling!
Q: Who was an important influence along your path?
A: Countless times, I have looked back at the moment when I was four and my neighbor remarked that I would someday be an engineer and realized that this was a defining moment.
My science and math teachers throughout my education were a great influence. In particular, I recall a moment when my geometry teacher returned a test to me and stated “You can do better than this, you will retake the test tomorrow.” This teacher believed in my abilities, supported my interest in math, and held me accountable to succeed. I received an A on the retake test.
Other influences included being a Science Olympiad, where my interest in science was heightened with other science minded people through competitions. One of the memorable challenges I participated in was the naked egg drop, where you had to drop an egg 30 feet and have it land on something on something only ¼” thick and not have the egg break. I also participated in Circuit Lab, where I placed second in state. Until then, I hadn’t realized that I had a knack for electronics and had gathered knowledge while taking apart stereos and other electronics as a kid.
Q: Who is your favorite scientist, engineer, or inventor?
A: Daniel Bernoulli. As a child attempting to repair a lawn mower carburetor, I didn’t know the science behind why it worked until a science teacher took the time to explain Bernoulli’s principle. Today, as I do my pre-flight check on a Cessna 172 airplane, I think of Bernoulli while checking the pitot-static system, the propeller, the control surfaces, the flaps, and the carbureted engine. On my take-off run, I pull back on the yoke at 55 knots, smile, and thank Bernoulli.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I am reading the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis with my son. As a child, I enjoyed the fantasy of an imaginary world accessible only through the back of a deep closet. Now, he’s enjoying that fantasy as well, checking every closet in our house for secret passages.
Recently, an article about TerraPower‘s Traveling Wave Reactor was published in the New York Times. Based on scientific theories first developed in the 1950′s and real experience in with operational fast reactors in the United States, TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor is designed to be a 1150 megawatt-electric liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses depleted uranium as fuel. It would greatly simplify the current nuclear fuel cycle by significantly reducing the need for uranium mining, enrichment facilities, and storage facilities, without the need for reprocessing plants.
IV Lab has supported research for TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor since it’s inception. Currently, our Instrument Shop plays an important role in building their test prototypes.
Start Up Really FAST (SURF) Incubator, Seattle’s community-supported place for entrepreneurs, regularly holds events in support of local start ups. As SURF’s newest sponsor, IV has partnered with SURF to support and engage Seattle’s start up community. Geoff Deane, GM/VP of IV Lab, recently presented at a SURF Happy Hour in downtown Seattle. As an entrepreneur, inventor, engineer, business leader, and inspirational presenter, Geoff showcased some of IV’s latest inventions, outlined lessons learned in the lab, and discussed how failing fast may help you succeed faster. Geoff outlines part of his talk on how invention sparks the momentum that entrepreneurs carry forward on the IV Insights blog.
A recent Puget Sound Business Journal TechFlash story highlights IV’s relationship with SURF Incubator and includes several great quotes on the importance of innovation by Geoff. Geekwire also published a great story highlighting the event and IV’s work with SURF.
In September, Pablos Holman participated in the Zeitgeist Americas conference, hosted by Google. Watch the video for his perspective on how the mindset of a hacker might just be the key to inventing our way out of the world’s biggest problems.
Evan Kline, IV Lab intern and FIRST Robotics #2412 team member, created this photosynth of IV Lab’s Instrument Shop. Click on the different shop tools to the right and watch it zoom in.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine: The Exhibition is a collection of 100 large-format photographs from our friends at The Cooking Lab, a team dedicated to advancing the state of culinary arts through the creative application of scientific knowledge and experimental techniques. The exhibit will illuminate the fascinating, accessible science at work every day in our own kitchens. They have selected 100 photographs taken over the last seven years and printed them in large format on aluminum.
The exhibition premiers October 26, 2013, at the Pacific Science Center and runs through February 17, 2014 after which it will travel worldwide for three years.
200 2nd Ave N
Q: What is your background and more specifically, what accomplishments have led you to Intellectual Ventures Laboratory?
A: My work at IV Lab is a culmination of the work I have been doing for the past 41 years. I went from building things as a little kid, to high school shop class, to eventually enrolling in a vocational college. At 18, I began an apprenticeship as a machinist trainee at Bingham-Willamette Company, formerly known as Willamette Iron and Steel. I worked there for over 15 years (with a short hiatus when I started a sailboat business in California) and rose to project manager of the special products division.
One of our department’s largest assignments during that time was as a contractor for the Channel Tunnel project between England and France. We built a unique machine that carved out the first service tunnel. Unlike most tunnel-digging machines, this one could break through both wet material as well as hard rock, a capability essential when digging underneath the ocean. I remember talking to the “mole drivers” who operate these tunneling machines. They said there is nothing worse than having the power go out, the water start pouring in, and being five miles down a hole. Needless to say, you start running in pitch dark.
Another major source of business for the department was making boiling water reactors for General Electric. The Bingham-Willamette Co. had a patent on the primary coolant pumps that distribute water around the reactor. These were pumps that had to run 24/7 with a 10,000 horsepower electric motor moving over 100,000 gallons of water a minute at over 600o F. The secret to the pump was the stuffing box or main shaft seal. On a primary cooling pump you cannot have radioactive water leaking out the shaft and the engineers at the company developed and patented the Balanced Stator Seal. This eliminated leakage, and is a very cleaver design.
The Special Products department was an awesome place to work, and offered me with the opportunity to work on all kinds of large mechanical projects, mostly focused in the nuclear industry. Eventually the division closed due to economic downsizing, and I relocated to Seattle. For several years, I worked as a shift foreman supervising large machinery manufacturing at Harbor Island Machine Works, building projects including the 4 Kiloton Diamond Press. I also worked for a Boeing supplier for a couple of years making all kinds of airplane parts before becoming the manager of the Physics Instrument Shop at the University of Washington.
It was a big leap, going from heavy industry to the science world and academia. I remember the first few days I was just trying to wrap my head around measuring in “microns”. Working for the Physics Department exposed me to the sciences through working with all kinds of scientists as well as on incredibly diverse projects. We made a lot of the parts for the CERN collider in Switzerland, parts that went to the South Pole and parts that went to national laboratories for high-energy research. I helped establish the shop and built a solid customer base throughout campus. Then, one day I got a call that changed my life. I have been working at IV Lab ever since.
Q: What do you bring to IV Lab? What is your specialty or area of expertise?
A: My area of expertise is machining and manufacturing, and managing the machine shop. When I was first hired at IV Lab, I was given the resources to build the entire machine shop from scratch. I jumped at such a rare opportunity. However, by the time I arrived, it was clear that there was a lot more that needed to be done. I helped install the plumbing and the electrical system, the fume hoods in the chemistry area, and the entire infrastructure of the Newton building at IV Lab.
Q: How is the IV Lab Instrument Shop unique?
A: At most machine shops, the machinists are simply handed a set of blueprints and told to build the hardware. At IV Lab, we strive to work one-on-one with the scientists and engineers. The scientist understands what he wants to do to make an experiment work, but may not have the expertise to know how to build it, that is where we come in. We may not understand exactly what the scientist is trying to do with the experiment, but we understand what we need to do to build it. So, it can be a really positive and fun relationship. Being able to do take a rough idea and see it through to a prototype is what makes working at IV Lab fun. I look forward to working on increasingly challenging projects into the future.
Q: Of the projects you have worked on, which one is your favorite?
A: Most recently, we spent a lot of time working on the Passive Vaccine Storage Device. I am particularly proud of the way my team designed and fabricated the installation tooling for the neck support sleeve in one of the early prototypes. This tooling went on to be used in the first production run of the devices. No one at the time knew how to solve the problem, so they asked the shop to tackle it. It was a real team effort, and we eventually developed a solution and device for inserting and gluing the neck tube. Time proved to be our greatest enemy; given more time, I think we could have made it even better.
Q: Who was an important influence along your path?
A: When I was eighteen, I worked with a really old machinist who ran a horizontal boring mill. As his apprentice, I was assigned the machine directly adjacent to him.
He would come in to work every day perfectly clean, go home perfectly clean and get more work done than anybody else. He taught me how to work efficiently and how to think through complex mechanical problems. His mantra was, “let your machine do the work, you don’t do it.” I was always going home greasy and he would say, “You’re climbing too much, you’re working too hard, let the machine do the work.”
I later learned that he had custom built an electric wheelchair for his wife and all the hand controls for his wife’s car– back before automated wheelchairs and car hand controls were on the market. He also built his own house from scratch. Some of these older guys were pretty amazing mechanics and came up with some incredibly clever solutions to machining problems before we had CNC machines.
Q: Is there anything that you haven’t had the opportunity to build that you would like to machine in the future?
A: I have built parts for nuclear reactors and giant tunneling machines. I remember working on a stay ring for a dam (the device that diverts water into the turbine) that was eight feet tall and forty-five feet in diameter. My career has mostly been working on large scale projects and I have always been interested in working with very small parts. For example, when you look inside a well-crafted watch and all the little pieces that comprise it, you realize what a huge challenge it is to manufacture and assemble a device like this. I am always amazed, “how do you do that?”
Q: Who is your favorite scientist, engineer, or inventor?
A: It would probably have to be Henry Ford. He was quite the ingenious guy with his use of the assembly line to facilitate mass production.
Q: What are you reading right now for business or pleasure?
A: I actually only started reading for pleasure in the past few years, particularly books on tape for long commutes and motorcycle rides. I have listened to all the novels by James Clavell; Shogun, Gai-Jin, and Noble House, and I just finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (by William L. Shirer). I generally enjoy books that weave fictional characters into real historical events.
In print, I am currently reading a fifteen book series of detective murder mysteries by Michael Connelly.
Since solar cells first became commercially viable in the 1950s, they have benefitted from slow but steady gains in efficiency across a variety of photovoltaic materials, including germanium, cadmium and silicon. Efficiency gains in silicon cells in particular stand out because those cells have leveraged the standardized production techniques used to create integrated circuits. As IC wafer sizes have grown to 300mm from 50mm or less, solar cell sizes have grown as well, with corresponding economies of scale. Whereas efficiencies for crystalline silicon cells were once on the order of 2%, they now stand at about 20% .
Such improvements have driven down the price of solar cells on a cost-per-watt basis so much that the costs of other parts of the system have become more salient. For example, installation costs make up an increasing percentage of the overall cost of adopting solar energy. The technology of the panels that house individual solar cells has changed little throughout the decades of steady improvements in fundamental solar-cell efficiencies. Consequently, at a time when lower per-watt prices could open up new markets and many governments are encouraging the use of solar energy, installation costs are actually slowing adoption and stifling further improvements in solar-cell efficiency.
One remedy for this problem is the standardization of solar panels. At present, solar installations must be customized to specific ground-site or rooftop features. Panels for residential buildings typically mount on rails, the placement of which is determined by the unique dimensions and interfaces of the panels being installed. Commercial installations use either rail systems, low-profile ballasted systems that simply sit on the roof, or panels that are integrated into the building façade itself. While all panels conform to safety and de facto electrical standards such as output voltage (6V, 12V, 24V) and MC4 connectors, the shape, size, and mounting hardware for solar panels vary by manufacturer.
This bespoke approach is costly, not only for the consumer who decides to adopt solar technology but for the overall health of the solar-energy ecosystem. Without standardization, system owners cannot simply unplug old panels and plug in new ones. If they decide to switch solar technologies or upgrade an existing installation, they must start from scratch. So despite the rapid and ongoing improvements in solar cells, a solar installation itself is a one-off investment. What could be a platform for continuous innovation becomes an immutable fixture instead. A recent study  from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concludes:
“This level of specialization, along with the more disaggregate nature of the [photovoltaic] installation business, results in very little sharing of knowledge across companies or geographies and limits experience-based cost-reduction opportunities.”
An analogous situation in the computer industry would be having standard processor sockets (the solar cells), but no standardization on the motherboard: no Baby-AT or ATX standards. In the early days of the PC, consumers and manufacturers quickly demanded standardization at that level, to allow compatibility with peripherals, computer cases, upgrades, and so on. Those standards encouraged widespread adoption of the technology and the rise of a complex ecosystem of developers, suppliers, investors, and consumers.
The solar industry has reached a point similar to that of the PC industry in its early days. It is time to develop industry-wide standards for solar-panel interfaces. By allowing easy and inexpensive swapping of panels from different manufacturers and technologies, such standards could drive the solar industry forward as much or more than improvements in cell efficiencies would. The NREL study predicts that:
“As the market matures, component manufacturers standardize system designs for utility-scale and rooftop applications, and installer best practices are shared, it is expected that immediate cost reductions similar in magnitude to the learning-curve benefits experienced by module [solar cell] manufacturers will be possible.”
One example will suffice to illustrate this point: the impact that standards would have on solar installation costs. Using data from the NREL study, we estimated the effect that standardizing mechanical interfaces might have on the cost of upgrading an existing system with more efficient panels. We found that a standardized system could save thousands of dollars in transaction costs during each upgrade cycle. (‘Transaction costs’ include electrical labor, hardware labor, installation materials, and installer profit.)
For example, an owner could save up to $9100 in the first cycle  and $6200 on the second cycle if all that was needed was panel replacement, rather than a complete rebuild of the system from scratch. More to the point, with standardization the overhead costs of replacement drop from about 40% of total system cost to effectively zero. This means that the cost of upgrade is lower not just for the original owner, but for buyers of used panels as well. Standardization would thus encourage the development of a market for used panels, expanding opportunities for adoption.
Of course, some components may not be reusable across material or technology changes. But standardization will still provide significant cost savings for the system owner—in addition to the energy savings conferred by ever more efficient panels and the ability to sell older-generation panels to a welcoming secondary market.
To be sure, the engineering challenge of standardizing solar panels is more difficult than the one posed by motherboards. Among other things, the finished panels and mounts must be made to accommodate roofs of varying composition, angle, and structural integrity. They weigh 50 lb. or more, and must stand up to wind, precipitation, and other environmental factors.
But the benefits are clear. Photovoltaic panel and mounting standardization would allow homeowners and businesses to quickly upgrade systems without risk, offering first-movers the best energy efficiency, sustaining a robust industry ecosystem, and providing significant energy savings to all.
 See for instance Sunpower’s E20 panel
 The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report, “Residential, Commercial, and Utility-Scale Photovoltaic (PV) System Prices in the United States: Current Drivers and Cost-Reduction Opportunities”, February 2012. *Current Generation uses estimated prices from 2010. A solar panel generation is assumed to be 5 years.
 We are considering only the cost side of a fixed-area residential solar system. The added benefits of efficiency and panel price reductions are the same in both scenarios.
Contributing Authors: Dave Wine, Jared Gibson, Charles Delahunt, David Gasperino, Mark Kuiper, and Ozgur Yildirim.