Recipe for innovation: Funding, freedom, focus

Three fundamental things are needed to encourage innovative thought and creative processes – freedom, funding, and focus. Here’s how Bell Labs used them to foster innovation.

By Federico Capasso, Ph.D., IEEE fellow, Robert Wallace Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and co-inventor of the quantum cascade laser, IEEE |  IT Management, ieee

After Bell Labs, I chose to go to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard because of its exciting broad-based interdisciplinary research. It also has a flat organizational structure with minimal barriers between people, which encourages innovation and collaboration. There are more than 10 different disciplines housed under a single dean in charge. This structure, and the presence of world-class research facilities, has helped me pursue a broad research agenda, all the way from the study of fundamental quantum mechanical forces between materials, to the manipulaton of light at the sub-wavelength scale in the quest to create new light sources with unprecedented control of the laser beams they emit. My collaborators range from atmospheric chemists and scientists growing new materials, to researchers fabricating micromechanical gizmos, to theorists seeking to shape and model the exotic forces arising from quantum fluctuations in these devices.

A critical ingredient of my approach to innovation is brainstorming. At Harvard, my group’s office area is built with plexiglass partitions and walls for my students to write on, which promotes the visualization and sharing of ideas. Sometimes we take pictures with our cell phones of the graffiti (sketches, equations, etc.) on the walls as a record of a particularly creative day. Harvard also helped me in establishing my own company, EOS Photonics, to exploit the commercialization of one of my inventions, the QC laser. Harvard has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and metamorphosed into a world leading research University in engineering and technology, beyond its traditional strength in basic science. Our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has a spirit and environment that is igniting innovative creativity in ways similar to what I had experienced at Bell Labs.

Innovation is essentially a destructive process, but it is creative destruction that forms the foundation of capitalism, a notion popularized by the great US economist Joseph Schumpeter. Innovation needs tension and turmoil, but to successfully harness these conditions requires discipline. There are creative sparks, which ignite progress with Eureka moments, but behind them is a more routine, reiterative process, which is applied by people who thrive on not knowing what will happen next.

Innovation in Application: The Quantum Cascade Laser

The laser came to being in 1960. It was the practical application of Albert Einstein’s theorizing in 1916 that predicted "stimulated emission", which is what makes a laser work. We are dealing with the very small world, the quantum world, where we are manipulating individual electrons and atoms to create a striking effect in the physical world we can see and feel: a bright, highly directional and monochromatic light beam.

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