Making Great Ideas Into Great Devices

Dear Friends:

CITRIS is a prolific generator of great ideas. From the students whose innovations fuel our Big Ideas competition each spring to the faculty and staff applying IT to California’s most pressing urban, medical, and resource-management challenges, I am humbled by the caliber of the minds I have the pleasure to work with. But CITRIS is about more than just cranking out brilliant ideas; our mission is to see those ideas bear fruit in the real world.

This newsletter zeros in on how one CITRIS researcher’s great idea is improving battery technology and opening new doors for small consumer electronics. Christine Ho’s innovative printable batteries will soon power smart temperature sensing stickers, a flexible technology that is only the first of many applications to come. After graduating in 2010, she and her business partner Brooks Kincaid kick-started Imprint Energy but continued to do research, as corporate members, at CITRIS’ Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory. At the Nanolab, they created the prototype batteries that convinced a major chemical company to fund the launch of their new Alameda facility.

The story about Christine and Imprint, “Taking Batteries Outside the Box,” examines how a great idea can be transformed into a great product. 

As even the best invention moves along the development pipeline toward realization, there inevitably comes a moment when it needs a booster shot of promotional adrenalin. Unfortunately, in nine out of ten cases it gets a wet blanket instead. Luckily, Christine’s great idea was kept alive with support by CITRIS at several key points. To institutionalize that kind of support, we are developing a new lab on the first floor of Sutardja Dai Hall that will make available a wide array of  digital fabrication tools helping students and faculty to rapidly prototype their ideas. This Invention Lab, or i-Lab, will deliver a potent jolt of CITRIS juice at that critical moment when an invention first enters the world as a prototype.

The newsletter’s second story, “Investing in an Inventive Environment,” previews the lab and the exciting work it will do for this community.

I am pleased to announce that the lab–along with a broader start-up incubator program about which I will tell you much more in the months to come–will be directed by Patrick Scaglia. Former CTO at Hewlett Packard, Patrick has been on the CITRIS board since its formation a decade ago. His extensive engineering and business experience, and his persistent commitment to keeping CITRIS, in his words, “focused on the interests of society,” make him the ideal person for this job. I am thrilled to have him aboard.

My good friend and colleague Steve Beck likes to say that to successfully fund an invention you need two kinds of prototypes: the “looks like” and the “works like.” The most beautiful devices often had hideous “works like” prototypes (look at Apple’s prototype mice), with batteries taped to them and bulky lights, speakers, sensors, and processors stuck on higgledy-piggledy. But the “works like” prototype proves an idea can work, and that’s key to selling it. To draw funders, and to help clarify a device’s identity even to its inventor, a “looks like” prototype is also pivotal. It is also a chance to make an idea irresistible to investors. As CITRIS Director of Healthcare Steve DeMello says, if you want to promote a belt-mounted health monitoring device, make sure it looks good enough to wear.

The iLab will introduce students to the tools and skills needed to make both high-grade “works like” and “looks like” prototypes. We are equipping it with 3-D printers, laser cutters, fused deposition modeling machines, and all the other equipment and tools needed to make prototype devices work…and to make them look great.  The lab will be a teaching space—I’ll be co-teaching a class there with the brilliant young EECS professor Björn Hartmann in the fall—but it will also enable faculty from all four CITRIS campuses to make their own prototypes, or to commission them, via digital file, from the lab staff.

Clearly this is partly about business; we want to create valuable new jobs and industries, promote our students’ work, and keep California’s IT and digital devices on innovation’s cutting edge. But our ambition reaches further. Our mission is to usher the best IT and engineering ideas into the real world where they can make a difference for the better. We want to see a strong California economy, but we also want to see the evolution of excellent devices that promote human dignity, make cities work better, restore and strengthen health, preserve the environment, and bring people closer to each other and to the nature of the world they live in.  That is great work if you can get it. And we do.

Keep up the good work.

Paul K. Wright
Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute@CITRIS Berkeley