Sandia LabNews

How to be innovative at Sandia

Six R&D 100 Award winning team leads share the recipe for innovation — it could start in the break room

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OUT-OF-THE-BOX-THINKING — Alex Hare works on testing a device that Sandia and research partner Know Biological are developing to warn the wearer before the onset of an epileptic seizure. Alex is part of a team that was awarded an R&D 100 Award for their work, made possible by trying new approaches to solve problems. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

We’ve been hearing — and talking — a lot about innovation lately. But what does it actually mean to be innovative, especially at a place like Sandia?

According to six Sandians who led their teams to win an R&D 100 Award in 2023, the recipe for innovation at the Labs requires equal parts collaboration, ability to think outside the box and a willingness to fail.

But perhaps most important, innovation means finding solutions that people will use to solve problems that people actually have.

“We don’t need to come up with something just because it sounds cool if no one cares about the solution,” physicist Ihab El-Kady said.

Ihab led his team to win their second R&D Award in four years. This prestigious award highlights the most promising new products, processes, materials and software developed throughout the world. Some might say the awards capture innovation in action.

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Speaking to collaboration, computer scientist Siva Rajamanickam and his team won an R&D 100 Award for a project Siva says started in the break room.

“I was hanging out in the break room with a colleague when I asked the question, ‘what is the tallest pole in the tent?’ Meaning, what is the most expensive part of the workflow for materials,” Siva said. “My colleague explained how they spend months on Density Functional Theory simulations and noted how it would be a ‘game changer’ if this process could be sped up.

“That conversation got me thinking about how we could build an AI model for DFT. I went to my colleague with the idea and was met with rightful skepticism — I don’t have a materials science background, so here I was, an outsider coming in suggesting I could do something better than what they had been doing for decades. But he pointed me to two DFT experts who coincidentally had been thinking of how they could use AI, but they didn’t have the computer science background to pull it off by themselves. It took us about three years, but we did it, and it all started in the break room.”

Mechanical engineer David Montes de Oca Zapiain and materials scientist Hojun Lim led a team that won another R&D 100 Award. Both researchers stress the importance of getting outside your comfort zone.

“Talk to people outside your expertise level, learn new things and new tools, and then apply them to what you’re already using,” Hojun said.

David also spoke of how important customer discovery was to their work.

“We had to find the right user,” David said. “We had already built a robust research code, but we wanted to figure out how to enable more people to use it. For us to make a successful product we really needed to get out of our comfort zone and talk to the people we thought might use the code. We ended up talking to around 120 people from 40 companies to really zero in on who would benefit most.”

Electrical engineer Matthew Reno sheds light on how innovation works at Sandia specifically. Matthew and his team also won an R&D 100 Award last year.

“Innovation at Sandia is more forward thinking,” Matthew said. “We get to do more than just look at a problem today, have a week to fix it and then move on to the next. Our research is innovative, which allows us to think outside the box to identify future trends and problems, look at what has already been done and learn what else is out there so that we can solve the problems of the future too.”

Biomedical engineer Phil Miller sees failure as something woven into the fabric of success and innovation.

“Failure is just a daily dose of reality,” Phil said. “You only get those ‘Aha!’ moments every so often and failure is an inevitable part of that journey.”

Phil and his team were another of the six Sandia teams who won an R&D 100 Award.

“Being innovative requires us to take drastically different approaches to solve problems and that can be scary because the truth is, failure can be time consuming and embarrassing,” Phil said. “But you cannot have innovation without failure.”

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