The Journey to Innovation

March 21, 2017

A PhD program is an intellectual environment that is unmatched in its intensity and focus. When you start graduate research, you know that you are embarking on a journey that will take years. There is always a question of your ability to stick with it, and you always have some self-doubt about whether you will make it. The PhD process itself changes you. It instills discipline, toughness and an analytical, problem-solving view of the world.

To complete your PhD, you are challenged to find a problem that’s worth solving, muster the resources to address that problem, and then communicate the solution to your peers for review. You go through this process at an age when you are still maturing intellectually and it’s an invaluable rite of passage. You must master the topic and become the expert if you want to solve the problem—it is in your hands only. That’s a lot of responsibility for a young person, but it drives innovation and outside-the-box thinking.

I first heard about the Hertz Fellowship in my second year of graduate school when a professor told me I should consider applying for it. I went through the interview process and really didn’t know what to expect afterward. My first reaction when I received the Fellowship was surprise. The second was that I felt I had received a huge vote of confidence, which was really needed at that early stage of my career. And the third was a sense of freedom. Part of this freedom was financial—it came from the generous financial support of the Fellowship that allowed me to dedicate 120 percent of myself to my research. The other part of this freedom was the ability to choose the subject matter most interesting to me, which is not the case with the majority of Fellowships.

Research freedom is critical to innovation. There’s been talk lately of an American “innovation gap,” with commentators noting that we are seeing only incremental improvements in our daily lives rather than life-changing innovation. Some may say we haven’t seen a real quality-of-life improvement over the past 50 years. I would argue with that. All around us are counter examples. Consider the rate of fatal auto accidents, which has decreased dramatically in the last 50 years. We are driving more and surviving what once were fatal accidents and that’s a quality of life improvement. What we pay for an automobile is a smaller percentage of our income than before, and we get a level of features, safety and reliability that didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Also consider something that is seemingly mundane: the washing machine. My father was a mechanical engineer involved in consumer and industrial products. He made an interesting point in the 1970s that the price of a basic washing machine hadn’t changed in 20 years and, really, it still hasn’t changed. You can get a low-end machine for about $300, then and now, but now you get electronic controls, reliability for 5000 cycles and many other benefits. And remember, the $300 you might have spent in 1960 for a basic washing machine is $2,461 in today’s dollars. People may say, “But I don’t have a machine to make my bed or fold my clothes,” but look at the machines you do have and the quality of life they create. Would you want to go back 50 years and do the back-breaking daily work necessary to run a household or drive around without seatbelts, airbags or anti-lock brakes?

In the field of medicine, the progress is stunning. My father had a heart attack at age 45—at that time there were no stents, no statin drugs, no imaging tools to visualize blood flow and detect blockages, no methods to deal with cardiac arrhythmias, and heart bypass operations were highly experimental. Today, these technologies are part of a standard of care and they have all been enabled in my adult lifetime by scientific research and have seen widespread deployment to the public.

Outside-the-box thinking has created some of the greatest innovations in history. It takes courage, perseverance and a willingness to fail and try again. It also takes a community of support, whether it is family, friends or colleagues. That’s one of the things the Hertz Foundation provides. It’s an intellectually independent group of people who are always pushing the envelope of creativity while supporting and encouraging each other to do so. We want to push the limits and believe that rules are there to be challenged, if not broken. I believe this is partially a result of the freedom and encouragement we are given when pursuing our degrees and partially the character of person the Hertz Foundation seeks to support. When you have a community of creative deep thinkers who push you to think differently, it makes a big difference in your worldview and your perception of limits. It makes you feel more comfortable disrupting the status quo because you’ll always have someone in your corner.

Even the way we share and receive information is continuing to change rapidly. And that has a huge impact on innovation. Just 20 years ago, you would write a paper, mail it to a journal, they would mail it to reviewers, the reviewer would mail their comments back to the editor, the editor would share the comments with the author, the paper would be revised, the cycle would continue, and the time to publication might be twelve to eighteen months until it appeared in print—when it would then be mailed to journal subscriber—you would then wait to receive your copy, read it and digest it. Today, you submit via email and your work may appear online in two to six weeks, available to everyone worldwide at exactly the same time. The rate at which technological and scientific breakthroughs are communicated now means other researchers, even in other fields, can review, digest and apply your information to their work much more quickly than before—resulting in more rapid impacts and helping shape further innovations.

If there is a perceived innovation gap, it’s because there is a gap between discovering things in a lab and introducing them to the commercial market. Many people don’t understand what it takes to get technology from concept to reality, from the lab to the home. Hardware has a much longer development and manufacturing product cycle than software does, so those that are used to software technology product refresh rates are frequently surprised when they deal with the design, tooling, and manufacturing issues associated with hardware products.

I have a great deal of experience in that and can say with certainty that it takes time to take a technology, prototype, test, and incorporate it into a product design, tool the design for production and then take it to scale in sufficient quantity to satisfy a mass market. CMOS imagers are a great example. In the early 2000s they were a developing technology—they were low resolution, expensive, and had technical shortcomings. Over a period of five years or so, the pricing dropped dramatically, allowing them to begin to be incorporated into cell phones—and are now an indispensable cell phone feature. Getting to scale and achieving component costs that allow use in a consumer application does take time, but it is happening faster and faster.

Color television was first available in the US on three networks in 1953. The RCA Victor television cost $1000 in 1956—in today’s dollars that is worth $8928—today it would buy you an incredible TV, something only imagined in science fiction in 1956. It took another 19 years before color TV unit sales surpassed black and white sales in the US. Economics drive many purchasing decisions and the economics must be right for a product or service to be successful. New products can also face pushback if they are seen as too “life-changing,” so there can be a gap between launch and acceptance by the general population.

Disruptors will be the leaders of the future—and many of them are and will be Hertz Fellows. Some of the most interesting opportunities I’ve had in my career occurred thanks to my fellowship and the Hertz community. Being a Hertz Fellow gave me the confidence to say “I can do that and I should say yes to that opportunity.” It gave me a strong message when I was young that I was on the right path to get to where I am today. I will forever be grateful for the Foundation’s vote of confidence and support and the freedom that it provided me to persevere and succeed.

Stephen Fantone is the founder and president of Optikos Corporation, a senior lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering Department at MIT and a director of The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. Before founding Optikos, Stephen worked at Polaroid Corporation. He has been awarded over 65 patents and is a recognized expert in optical engineering and optical product development. Stephen also serves on the boards of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research and The Optical Society (OSA) Foundation; the OSA awarded him its Distinguished Service Award for his more than 40 years of involvement with the organization. Stephen received SB degrees in electrical engineering and management from MIT and his PhD in optics from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester.