Arctic Innovation, Worldwide Impact
Embracing Northern Challenges to Create Innovative Solutions for the World
Sunlight filters through the clouds on a July evening in a remote area of Alaska’s eastern Interior.
© Todd Paris
Bestselling books such as the “$100 Startup,” “The Lean Startup,” and “The 4 Hour Work-Week” tell stories of modern entrepreneurs who quickly turn a startup company into a massive enterprise. Though these stories seem like fairytales, they are quickly becoming the new dogma of entrepreneurs and innovators worldwide.
Traditionally, companies needed a large workforce and regional offices to reach nationwide customers, but recent acquisitions and Initial Public Offering valuations point to a new trend. In this new world, entrepreneurs can provide a product economically and scale up to reach a worldwide audience with just a handful of employees.
Recently, thirteen staff at Instagram turned 551 days of effort into a $1 billion photo sharing business—a value of $77 million per employee. Where Microsoft went from zero to $1 million revenues in three years, Facebook, by comparison, went from zero to $150 million. Twitter was coded and launched within four months, and now it’s a company with a valuation of more than $38 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.
After seeing this rapid growth, it’s not surprising that investors are flocking to e-commerce companies and funding them at nearly three times the rate of companies in other industries. It’s also not surprising that many of our nation’s great programmers and entrepreneurial minds are dedicating their efforts to building social networks and games after seeing the success of Facebook and Angry Birds.
The UAF Arctic Innovation Competition (AIC) was created by Dr. Ping Lan in 2009 to recognize inventors in the Arctic. This year, Charlie Parr took first place for software designed to fly a wide variety of drone aircraft using a simple, intuitive interface. From left to right: Dr. Charlie Sparks, Dr. Ping Lan, Brennen Chamberlain, Charlie Parr, Bharat Jhaveri, Clay Beethe, UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers.
Photo courtesy of Arctic Innovation Competition
The modern infatuation with mobile apps and games has earned the ire of some influential figures. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, has criticized the recent attention on social media tools by lamenting, “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.” Neil Degrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, has criticized the apparent focus on software, saying to entrepreneurs, “Society has bigger problems than what can be solved with your next app.” Even Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has been featured on the cover of the MIT Technology Review with the headline: “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead I Got Facebook.”
It’s easy to dismiss gaming software and social networks as trivial when many problems around the world are more pressing and can’t be solved with a social media website or gaming app. Silicon Valley problems have led to Silicon Valley solutions, and in many places around the world, these solutions just aren’t enough.
Embracing the Problem
In a place like Alaska, our geography defines our daily challenges. Alaskans are blessed with an abundance of resources, but access to these resources has always been a major challenge.
At more than twice the size of Texas, access to resources is expensive, and the problem is only intensified by Alaska’s Arctic and subarctic climates. The state’s remoteness drives up costs, as exemplified by the fact that Alaskans face the highest cost of energy per capita, and Alaska has the fourth highest cost of living in the nation behind Hawaii, New York, and Connecticut. In remote areas, emergency medical care is hours away, brownouts are common, and plumbing infrastructure is scarce. Alaska has the lowest food security in the nation and has been featured in National Geographic as the home of the $16 breadstick and $39 watermelon.
Alaska is dependent on its natural resources for jobs and economic growth, but these resources are located in remote areas, driving up the cost of doing business. Exports of fish, raw minerals, oil, natural gas, and timber account for the vast majority of trade, accounting for over 90 percent of exports in Alaska. Because natural resource exports are highly dependent on market volatility and regulatory changes, shifts in commodity or energy prices have a significant effect.
Nowhere else in the United States is there a more pressing need for innovation in areas like energy production, adaptation to climate change, healthcare, and food security. As America’s only Arctic state, Alaska is at the forefront of the nation’s opportunities for national and international research, stakeholder collaboration, energy development, and governance initiatives.
Alaska is not alone in these challenges. Billions around the world need access to clean water and low-cost energy. Many people are not located in areas with dense transportation or communication networks. Others lack access to healthcare, a cheap food supply, or the ability to manage a disparate workforce.
Alaskans have developed numerous solutions to address the challenges of living in remote and Arctic locations. In this new Alaska decade, the opportunity will be building these technologies in Alaska, creating jobs, and, at the same time, solving the most pressing problems that Alaskans face.
A ‘Remote Solutions’ Laboratory
Like so many other communities worldwide, businesses, nonprofits, and governments are dedicated to solving regional problems and often take on large initiatives to address pressing needs. The backbone of these big projects unlocks big opportunities for new technology.
Coincidentally, the technology itself seems to be getting smaller, no matter where you are. For example, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) researchers are designing small rockets to decrease the expenses associated with testing sensors on rockets. Because most rockets were used only once, testing sensors was an extremely expensive task. The Geophysical Institute Electronics Shop designed a reusable, $25,000 carbon fiber rocket that can be fired several times.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is building a variety of technologies to address the problems of remote areas.
Image by Dayne Broderson and UAF GI Design
Sensors and communication devices are also getting smaller. For example, where measuring infrasound typically required large, fire extinguisher size devices, UAF inventors have created small and low power infrasound microphone, making the technology useful for new applications. The inventor, Jeff Rothman, has developed a sensor that is roughly the size of a hockey puck and just as sensitive as high-end models.
Because the size of the sensor has decreased, the number of users for the device is increasing. In the past, these sensors were set up in large arrays and used to monitor compliance with the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or geophysical phenomena. A complete sensor array can be carried by a single person or unmanned aircraft, and the sensor operates with smaller battery packs. Now the sensors have the potential to be deployed worldwide to monitor major issues, such as ballistic detonation, wildlife poaching, and illegal timber cutting, from miles away. The inventor worked with the university to file a patent last year, leading the way for him to work with a startup company and sell the technology from Alaska.
Rockets and vehicles are shrinking in size, small unmanned aircraft are becoming more useful, and sensors are paving the way to streamlined communication. These small systems and devices can be built anywhere there is the expertise and ownership. Additionally, they can be shipped around the world to compete in a global economy.
Made In Alaska for The World
Tangible devices are just the beginning. Riding on beams of light, software can be exported all over the world at almost no cost, and numerous inventors can develop software to meet a region’s needs and also export this software around the world.
For example, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power developed software and hardware technology that addresses the energy problems faced by remote communities on isolated electric grids. This technology provides proprietary hardware and software to help communities manage electricity on microgrids and help them manage energy more efficiently than by installing large systems designed for cities and military bases. Numerous communities and companies (such as mining operations) face the same energy management issues worldwide.
The Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) is dedicated to applied energy research and testing focused on lowering the cost of energy throughout Alaska.
© Todd Paris
The inventors are looking to take the technology worldwide by launching a startup to sell the technology. The company intends to address the energy problems faced by remote communities and isolated electric grids by providing proprietary hardware and software to help these communities use energy more efficiently.
The startup, V-ADAPT, Inc., is helping the South Korean government assess how airborne particulates could impact regional aviation, safety, and commerce and is looking to use the tools for hazards other than volcanoes, including industrial pollution and sand storms. Further, the company is collaborating with Mobile Mapping Corporation (another UAF faculty-owned company) on a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research Grant. The grant will pay for the next stage of development of software that can be used by airplane manufacturers to assess damage to engines due to dust, ash, and other airborne particulates.
UAF has developed several signal processing technologies to capture, detect, track, and communicate signals. Other technologies can filter background noise or even boost the range of devices hundreds of miles, like radar. This software has been licensed to Northrop Grumman for use all over the world.
Other inventors have demonstrated that unmanned vehicles can automate expensive activities that require manual inspection, such as pipeline surveillance, road inspection, or property tax assessment. From their work with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Integration, UAF researchers turned entrepreneurs have developed a ground control station that works with software to make flying unmanned aircraft as easy as running a phone app. The new company, ArcticFire Development Corporation, is building piloting software. Their software and ground control station will help professionals process flight data to make business decisions based on the data that they collect from drone flight.
Researchers have developed software as an aside to their everyday jobs. Will Fisher and Dayne Broderson have developed software that forecasts employee expenditures for grant-based institutions, like universities. The web-based software tool takes a complex set of information based on grant awards, contract termination dates, employee workloads, and project teams to forecast how much money and time they have left to complete a project. The developers plan on launching a website at Pridict.us to provide their software to university supervisors around the world.
Inventors from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power have invented “Black Box” hardware that can collect data from microgrids and isolated power generation systems.
Photo courtesy of Gwen Holdmann and Marc Mueller-Stoffels
Supporting Remote Innovators
Remoteness produces a pressing need to innovate and puts those in remote locations at the forefront of research into vehicles, sensors, data processing, and software that can be used all over the world. But inventions and concepts are not products. They require many hours of additional work to turn into patents, capital to turn into working prototypes, and still more time to turn them into something that can be bought.
Acting upon the potential within Alaska to create innovative new products, UAF has begun working with several partners to commercialize technology. UAF formed the Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization (OIPC) in FY 2011. OIPC helps UAF inventors protect their inventions and move University research into the private sector, where it can create jobs and stimulate economic development. To provide flexibility and commercial experience to licensing efforts, the nonprofit Nanook Innovation Corporation was formed in 2012 to license intellectual property from research, and Nanook Tech Ventures, a for-profit company, was created in 2013 to build startups based on university technology.
Through its commercialization center, UAF is bridging the gap between research and the private sector, but remoteness causes a problem for commercialization programs as well. Not all departments have the same expertise or equipment, and not all investors have the same exposure to bring their invention to market. In an effort to decrease infrastructure and support costs, OIPC is leveraging the many experts at the university and its commercialization center to keep costs to a minimum.
To build momentum for devices, OIPC is providing inventors with the means to access services for CAD (computer aided design) schematics and 3D printed prototypes. OIPC is connecting inventors with staff from the UAF Community and Technical College who can provide these services. From this initial work, CAD drawings can be used for functional prototyping and be useful for filing a patent.
For software, OIPC is working with Nanook Innovation Corporation to provide small “proof of concept” websites for software developers. Through these sites, developers can upload, license, and assess whether their tools fit the needs of the consumers. This method allows the software developer to rapidly improve the software, turn it into a product, and reduces the time it takes to bring software to market after each new development. Several software inventors are moving forward. One developer at UAF has already released a tool for Blackboard learn via the e-commerce site, a student plans to launch his mobile app via Google Play, and two others will to launch their physics modeling software online.
From these simple efforts, multiple innovators are streamlining the process to marketing, lowering costs, and building a bigger community of innovators and mentors in the process.
Growing Efforts with Industry
Remoteness may lead to some interesting technological solutions, but it makes big problems seem bigger. Remoteness makes it difficult to find the right business partners, technical expertise, mentors, or capital to launch new products.
But there are ways to make a remote area seem less so. The solution is to broaden the amount of collaboration beyond departments, entities, and companies. In many cases, commercializing technology requires establishing partnerships between industry and academia to translate new ideas and discoveries to real products and services in the marketplace.
To expedite this, a community can use some best practices in working together.
UAF has a long history of working closely with industry, and recently UAF has increased the speed of contracting and the efficiency of technology commercialization. It has also begun working with private companies on unique opportunities including Small Business Technology Transfer Research grants, Small Business Innovation Research Grants, and other interdisciplinary research. UAF and its collaborators are licensing new technology as well as creating new startups in conjunction with entrepreneurs.
Through collaboration, UAF inventors and entrepreneurs can overcome obstacles, innovate, and build great products that can be exported.
Beyond The Arctic
Alaskan innovators are building technologies that work at a distance for the distant. Innovators are building new devices, vehicles, software, and products that address the challenges of living in a remote place. So many in the world are also facing these same issues, and if these problems can be conquered with local innovations, then the big problems Alaskans face won’t seem so big, and lives in the far North will be substantially changed. The monetary valuation of the business may not be on par with the next Facebook or Twitter, but the value of remote innovation to everyday lives will far exceed them both.
Adam Krynicki is the Business Development Director for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization and serves on the board of Nanook Tech Ventures.
This first appeared in the March 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.