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  • (Applause)

  • How's everybody doing?

  • Are you as nervous as me?

  • Probably not.

  • So today I'm going to talk to you about

  • how to be a technology innovator without

  • an engineering degree or Asperger's.

  • If you look at something from one angle long enough

  • it becomes very difficult to see it from a different perspective.

  • Check out this picture. This is a burr.

  • It's one of those prickly plants that gets stuck to

  • your clothes when you're walking outside.

  • But what if you could look at the burr and think of Velcro?

  • The burr was the inspiration for the creation of Velcro.

  • I try to think like this whenever I learn about a new technology,

  • or about how anything in the world works.

  • How can one thing,

  • one technology be applied to something else in the world?

  • An example is a while back I learned about a new

  • waterproof film for electronics.

  • And I applied this exercise.

  • Where else in the world might a waterproof film be useful?

  • Then I realized, if you could stick a waterproof film into shampoo,

  • you could eliminate umbrellas.

  • Now, I have no idea if this is scientifically plausible

  • but it seems like a cool idea and it's worth exploring, right?

  • If you open your mind you can come up with really creative ideas

  • by connecting objects and technologies that on the surface

  • seemingly have nothing to do with each other.

  • Here's another example. This is the Breathe Right nasal strip.

  • This was created by a Disney Imagineer, not a doctor.

  • And one night he went to sleep and his nose was stuffy

  • and he realized that if you lift the skin on your nose

  • you can breath clearly.

  • And so he invented a strip that does just that

  • and the result is a multimillion-dollar product.

  • Space elevators, energy derived from water,

  • food that is synthesized from boxes of carbon and oxygen.

  • These kind of all seem like crazy ideas,

  • but maybe these ideas just haven't been fully explored yet.

  • We live in a world where we are divided by skill set

  • according to our educational backgrounds

  • and the letters next to our names like PhD and MD.

  • These people are considered the experts in their fields.

  • And so naturally one would assume that the people

  • that know the most about their fields

  • will be the innovators within their fields.

  • And often times they are.

  • But these people are also hindered sometimes because they know too much.

  • They've been trained to think in a certain way

  • and so their knowledge and expertise in a field

  • is thus narrowly tied to their own experiences

  • and to what they've been taught.

  • And in this way people are sometimes trained to think

  • inside of the box.

  • Experts often look at problems from the same viewpoint

  • that it becomes almost impossible for them

  • to see it from a different perspective.

  • And in fact it creates a cognitive dissonance or

  • a discomfort in all of us when we're forced

  • to view things in a way in which we are not used to.

  • So in other words, by virtue of having perspective,

  • we lack perspective.

  • And this phenomenon greatly hinders

  • technological innovation and creativity.

  • And so it's no coincidence that most great discoveries

  • were made by people early in their careers.

  • It's no coincidence that most Nobel Prize winners

  • came up with their groundbreaking research

  • during or soon after their graduate studies.

  • And yet these people are often not awarded their big prizes

  • until decades after their research.

  • Until the implications of their research are in common use.

  • So I propose that it's the people who don't look at new fields

  • with a jaded eye, who are not tied to five, ten, twenty years

  • of training who are able to come in and look at a problem

  • from an entirely fresh perspective.

  • They can come in with a fresh way of looking at problems

  • departing from the traditional approaches

  • that have been followed by the experts.

  • And without constraints of an ingrained framework

  • they can look at problems without decades of prejudice,

  • and be able to come up with big connections

  • between objects and technologies that seemingly

  • have nothing to do with each other.

  • So last October while I was an undergraduate at Penn

  • I came up with a way to wirelessly transmit power

  • through the air in just two days.

  • Just by thinking about the problem differently

  • and by asking a lot of questions.

  • I was not an engineer and I did not have Asperger's.

  • My experience has shown me that there is a lot

  • of creativity in this world that is not being harnessed

  • because people don't have the right letters next to their names.

  • And because people are too afraid to push forward

  • their ideas that can't possibly work because they thought of it.

  • When I looked at my wireless laptop with a 15-foot wire

  • dangling from its power socket

  • I wondered how can I get rid of that cord?

  • How could I beam energy to my computer

  • so that I didn't have to plug it in to charge it?

  • How could I make charging more like Wi-Fi?

  • I began by thinking about objects

  • that beamed energy through the air.

  • I asked really simple questions.

  • Things that people in this room probably already know.

  • Like, how do remote controls work?

  • How do lasers work? How does Wi-Fi work?

  • I googled the wireless power landscape

  • and realized that there were a few viable solutions.

  • But each solution had its own set of problems

  • that would get in the way of its commercialization.

  • So I realized that you could beam the entire

  • electromagnetic spectrum, which is basically everything

  • from radio waves to gamma waves.

  • But the right half of the spectrum was too dangerous to beam.

  • You know, you wouldn't want X-rays whizzing through your body

  • just to be able to charge your cell phone.

  • And the left half of the spectrum was either too inefficient

  • or too tightly regulated by the government.

  • So I had to approach the problem creatively.

  • I looked into harnessing the energy from vibrations

  • that constantly surround us like the road bumps you feel in your car.

  • But how could my electronic devices harness this energy?

  • I knew that no one would want to stick a shaker to the back of their phone

  • or stick bulky energy harvesting plates in their shoes.

  • So I had to figure out a way to send vibrations through the air.

  • And then I realized sound does that.

  • Sound travels through the air by vibrating air particles

  • and because sound is a form of energy,

  • you can harness the vibrational energy of sound.

  • So I started doing research on ultrasound

  • because it was too high in frequency for you to be able to hear it.

  • And in my research I learned that ultrasound

  • was used to create acoustic weapons.

  • So I figured that if there was enough energy from ultrasound

  • to create a bomb, you could probably charge your cell phone with it.

  • So how does a Paleobiology major at Penn

  • learn how to convert ultrasound into electricity?

  • Well, I literally just googled it. And I found a --

  • (Laughter) (Applause)

  • And I found a material that did just that.

  • So this is less than 48 hours after

  • the original idea of creating wireless power.

  • Ultrasonic wireless power. It seemed like an awesome idea,

  • but I figured that if I thought of it there was no way it could work.

  • Why hadn't somebody else thought of it before?

  • Why hadn't the ultrasound expert thought of it before?

  • I didn't know enough about the technology to determine if it could work or not.

  • And I was a little hesitant to tell any real engineers about it.

  • Because honestly, I thought they would laugh at me.

  • I thought they would think I was stupid.

  • But about a week or so later I decided

  • to tell my physics professor about the idea.

  • And when I did, he told me that it wouldn't work.

  • That there was no way that I could get enough energy

  • out of ultrasound to be able to charge a cell phone.

  • I was crushed, but I kept thinking about that acoustic bomb.

  • I knew that I needed to do more research,

  • so I read paper after paper on ultrasound and I devised the basic system.

  • I tried to teach myself as much as I possibly could.

  • I was reading "Electrical Engineering For Dummies"

  • and begging professors to teach me extra concepts after class.

  • And as outlandish as it sounds, I decided to submit the idea

  • to the Penn Invention Competition.

  • I ordered a few ultrasonic transmitters and receivers online.

  • And got an electrical engineering student

  • to help me wire a few things together.

  • We were able to prove that you could beam

  • a tiny amount of power over about an inch.

  • This was enough to keep me going.

  • We won the student invention competition.

  • And a few days later, I was told that Walt Mossberg,

  • the senior technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal

  • wanted to speak to us.

  • This was crazy. (Laughter)

  • He told us that if we could build a real prototype of this technology

  • we could demo it at his annual tech conference.

  • Now, at the time I didn't know much about Walt or his D conference.

  • But I soon learned that this was the premier tech conference of the year.

  • That this was where Steve Jobs debated Bill Gates.

  • I knew I needed to get to this conference.

  • But I had absolutely no idea if I could really build it.

  • I had one month. The race was on.

  • So to make this thing work, I had to scale it up

  • from basically what was a tiny little toy to a decent sized prototype.

  • Now remember, I was the idea person, you know.

  • I could tell you about the science and how it works,

  • but I had absolutely no idea how to wire anything together.

  • So I found an engineer in Indiana and I begged him

  • to help me build this prototype.

  • I simplified the design using off the shelf parts.

  • And we worked together day and night for two straight weeks over the phone

  • building this prototype and we finished it just two days before the conference.

  • And I got it working only 10 minutes

  • before I had to demo it for the first time. (Laughter)

  • Talk about anxiety.

  • But it worked and that was so cool.

  • We beamed energy over three feet and at about thirty times

  • the amount of power that we got out

  • from the initial proof of concept model.

  • The conference was an enormous success.

  • But it surprisingly spurred a lot of anger and criticism

  • from real engineers.

  • (Laughter)

  • They told me that it could never work on a larger scale,

  • there was no way you could actually

  • use ultrasound to charge a cell phone,

  • that what I was trying to do was impossible.

  • But I also knew that no one could really determine

  • if the technology could work or not.

  • Because the technology didn't exist yet.

  • And what I had shown there on the D stage

  • was using off the shelf parts.

  • We hadn't even tried to push it further.

  • And I kept hearing the same story about

  • how one person would say something was impossible,

  • then somebody else would figure it out.

  • But despite my optimism, I still felt insecure

  • because so many people were trying to knock me down.

  • So I flew around the country talking to the top professors

  • in acoustic research.

  • And I was happy to find that most of them thought it could work.

  • But with a few questions.

  • And probably the biggest nagging question was:

  • If this thing could work, why hadn't it been done before?

  • And it also seemed that for every positive opinion I got

  • there was another negative one.

  • I couldn't believe how there were such different

  • opinions by experts in the same field.

  • But despite my frustration, this was a very important lesson for me to learn.

  • This taught me to be skeptical of experts,

  • that expertise represented a narrow way of looking at things,

  • and that experts knew what they knew based on their own prior studies.

  • And since ultrasonic wireless power didn't exist yet,

  • no one had prior studies with it.

  • So no one could really determine if this could work on a larger scale.

  • And nobody really fully understood the problem.

  • And so no one could accurately answer my questions.

  • I realized that it was up to me to solve it.

  • And this was a very daunting prospect

  • considering my scientific background was at the undergraduate level.

  • And my engineering was largely self-taught.

  • So asking seven people the same question and averaging the answer

  • was a very inefficient way about doing things,

  • but it did push the concept forward.

  • And the further that I dug into the technology

  • and the theory behind it

  • the more complex the technological hurdles became.