Innovate: Soft Photonics 2016 – The Start Up Challenge

Road Trip!
On 2 June, 2016, we headed toward Michigan, eight of us from Purdue.
Destination: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Purpose: To participate in the Innovate Challenge, where we form inter-university groups of three and find the most innovative way to solve a current problem.
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The group from Purdue. Two of us are travelling on their own.

6 pm: We reach the Holiday Inn Hotel, and refresh ourselves. There seems to be a problem, and our introduction session is set back by two hours, which gives us time to rest.
Meet and Greet:
9 PM: We meet in the hotel dining room. It turns out that four out of the eight students from the Norfolk State University had missed their connecting flight. The organisers come up with another idea on the fly. Instead of each team having one student from each university, we’ll have members from at least two Universities, to compensate for the missing students.
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All the participants.

The next morning is rather hectic.
8-8.30 AM: We have breakfast at the main campus.
9-9.30 AM : Johnathan Fay starts the seminar, introducing us to the Start Up journey – how new technologies and ideas are conceived, develop into products, are customised according to consumer needs, and eventually succeed/get thrown away.
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Jonathan Fay

9-9.30: We are introduced to two new forms of tech –
Titanium nitride plasmonic nanoparticles: CMOS compatible nanometer size powders that have applications in biomedical industry, solar cells and magnetic recording.
and,
Kirigami composites: A special kind of polymer engineering that makes highly elastic microstructures that can be reshaped and reformed using mechanical stress, voltages, etc.
We are asked to choose one and come up with ideas where we use the technologies to solve problems.
Ideation
9.30-11 AM: The ideation session. We split up into groups. Starting off with the Kirigami composites as a root, we make an idea tree, with branches connecting and spreading out to anything we can associate with the composites.
We also come up with a cool name  for our team.
Team LumiVeris: Lumi – light, Veritas – Truth . Merged together to form LumiVeris. That’s our team.
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Team Lumiveris.

A lot of unexpected things happen here. Going in to the competition, I thought we were going to propose something in the lines of a research proposal. Something very practical, attainable after a couple of years of effort, with potential for use in the near future. I was thinking in the lines of some kind of flexible lens, or a chromatic filter that would come in handy in a laser lab – something very close to the lines of my research. But once we start brainstorming, any trace of sticking to the area of my research go out the window. We talk about colour changing clothes, remotely powering drones, privacy enhancing windows, and power saving walls, with each idea being more boisterous and amazing than the last one.
Here, we also clarify an obvious question that was bugging many of us from the beginning. If we are to come up with new methods of solving a problem, why are we starting off with a technology? shouldn’t we pick a problem first and then come up with a technology to solve it?
The answer is quite simple. Once we have a technology as a kernel, spreading out ideas from it is easier. We have the flexibility of choosing a problem that can be solved with the resources we have, and sometimes, can come up with different ways of attacking a problem that we had never even thought of initially.
We float around from optical filters used for photonic experiments to microfluidic applications, and from there to adjustable lenses in sunglasses. We finally settle for one project.
The Project: To make auto adjusting window screening technologies. 
The idea is to develop windows that can keep light in or out, filtering out particular frequencies while letting in others. One use of it could be to conserve heat in buildings, or to keep cars cool during prolonged exposures in the sun. Nothing’s final yet, but it’s a starting point.
Customer Segment and Value Proposition
11.20-12: We learn about finding the customer, and trying to figure out which of their needs our solution caters to. The idea is to give them something that they ‘absolutely need’, not something that is ‘nice to have’.
More about the innovation process
12-3.15 pm: We move on about Ecosystem Mapping and Customer Discovery. This is where we are supposed to modify and update our initial technology to fit customer needs. We learn about interviewing different kinds of people who will be affected by our products. It’s not only the people who are potential buyers that are affected, and how much they are willing to pay for our product. There are competitors who would be hurt by our product, manufacturers who might not be even interested in changing their assembly line to fit our product assembly, and other product owners whose products might complement, or be hurt by our innovation. Also we learnt about what to ask when interviewing people, and what not to ask.
Storytelling session
3.15-4 PM: We get two demonstrations of previous projects by previous teams. They tell us about the challenges they faced, and the steps they had to take to adapt to consumer needs when launching their products.
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Storytelling session.

The Beginning
We finish ahead of time. We have two weeks to work with our project, polish our idea, take twenty interviews and finally, present our project in front of a panel of judges.
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Concluding statement: We are all heroes!

Conclusion:
Personally, I had decided to take part in this project to get in touch with the business aspect of things. Yes, I’ll be doing a lot of research and learning a lot of things along the way. Perhaps even come out with a couple of patents. But if I want to market my product, and take it up to consumers, do I really have what it takes to go all the way?
If someone had asked me this question before the workshop, I would probably have given them a handwaving idea about where I was about to go with my innovation. But now, the first thing I have to admit to myself is that I had no idea about how launching a product works in the real world.
It was a short workshop with a lot of information crammed in a few hours. At the end of it, I cannot really say that I know a lot about launching a product, but I can say that I know what I don’t know, and I know whom to seek out, when I am looking for the know-how.
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