So You Want to be an Innovator?

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So You Want to be an Innovator?

How to Conceive, Create, and Convey Your Big Idea


Randall Tagg, Associate Professor

University of Colorado at Denver

As a physics student, you are likely driven by a deep curiosity about how nature works. But you might have another itch you need to scratch: finding an application for your deep knowledge. Wait a minute . . . isn’t that what engineering is all about? To be sure, engineers are great colleagues to have. However, a physicist can bring to a team of innovators a perspective that is broad, deep, and loaded with unusual connections.

I like to sum up “innovation” in a statement that sounds like it came from Caesar1: “VC, VC, VC!” This stands for “value conceived, value created, value conveyed!” Think about the transistor. To create it, someone had to conceive how to use the fundamental quantum theory of solids to control the flow of charges in semiconductors. Then someone had to create a working instance of such a device. Finally, someone had to convey the value of this device for products such as portable radios and (eventually) computers.


To conceive of a useful new object, the somewhat mysterious first step, you will need more than just good physics knowledge. You will need to identify real needs that people have and make unusual connections between ideas. Personal experience also plays an important role.
Consider my student Caleb Carr. Drawing on his precollege experience in search and rescue, Caleb is now experimenting with new ideas to control the motion of people being hoisted into helicopters in emergency situations.


To create a physical prototype of a new idea, you need some practical knowledge and the technical resources to apply such knowledge. To this end, we have set up in Colorado a place called the Innovation Hyperlab. It is an inventor’s paradise, where physics-related topics can be explored using 52 technologies ranging from mechanical systems to advanced computer networking. We teach the technologies “on demand”; our students quickly learn what they need to know when they need to know it.

Caleb’s team needed to quickly assimilate a wide array of knowledge that did not fall into their regular coursework. The students learned how to combine motors and mechanical components to prototype a motion control system. They worked out how to use Arduino microcontrollers and accelerometers to acquire data about swinging motion. Now the team is studying how to do Python programming in order to process the data and control their mechanical system.


To convey the value of the product, you should talk to friends from engineering, business, art, and other fields. Somehow you need to find a sustainable scheme to make your idea available to the public, a business enterprise or organization that will oversee the production and distribution of your “great new thing.” From homegrown maker spaces to university-based endeavors such as Stanford’s D-School and Harvard’s I-Lab, student innovation centers are emerging across the country to facilitate this process. You can advocate for such resources at your university.  Students Riley Ruse, Natalie Kellet, and Caleb Carr visit the world's largest wind tunnel. Photo courtesy of Randall Tagg.

Caleb’s team started talking with experts, potential clients, and even potential manufacturers early in their project. They visited the NASA Ames Research Lab, for instance, where active research on helicopter control was taking place. Caleb has also visited congressional offices to advocate more broadly for student innovators as a fellow supported by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and Stanford’s “Epicenter.”

The Path

Consider what you might accomplish if you take the path of innovation. Chester Carlson saw a need in the law offices of the 1930s for a way to more efficiently copy documents. He used his undergraduate knowledge of physics to create (on his kitchen table) a method for using photoconductive sulfur to concentrate charge in response to light. Conveying to the market the value of his new way of creating images took another 20 years (!) and the assistance of a major research and development center called Battelle Memorial Institute. But the end result was a company called Xerox and an industry with annual revenues in the billions of dollars. Not bad for someone with an undergraduate physics degree.

My students here in Colorado who have chosen careers in private industry have created innovations in companies like Cold Quanta and Vescent Photonics. One student at Insight Photonic Solutions works on applying new swept laser technology to a technique called optical coherence tomography; this can be used to create three-dimensional images of the retina to aid ophthalmologists treating patients with eye disease.

Mixing and matching today’s diverse technologies to meet the needs of a planet with 7 billion people could be the 21st-century equivalent of the Space Race for aspiring physicists. Innovation can start at any scale and in any situation. It can emerge from well-funded, ambitious projects like those noted above. It can also start as a novel way to make breakfast in your dorm room or a notable contribution during an internship or while working with a research group. Ultimately, innovation should be part of your daily fare wherever you work—it’s part and parcel of who you are as a physicist. //

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Riley Ruse and Caleb Carr tinker in the laboratory. Photo courtesy of Randall Tagg.

The Innovation Hyperlab, set up inside a public high school in Aurora, Colorado, is a place where students learn cooperatively in small groups, connect their classroom lessons to real problems, acquire advanced skills needed in the workforce, and explore unique innovations.

The goals of the new lab:

01. To improve middle and high school students’ desire and ability to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the health sciences by introducing cutting-edge physics and engineering research projects

02. To study the learning outcomes of students and teachers

03. To engage local businesses to inspire students to work on problems important to the region’s economy

“It’s all about real-world preparation,” Tagg said. “When we challenge students with authentic problems and provide professional-grade tools to solve them, these students will surprise us with creative solutions.”

Read more about Tagg’s Innovation Hyperlab online at

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