On our California road trip, we knew that to find innovation, we’d have to stop at Stanford. About 30 miles south of San Francisco, the private university partners with all sorts of industries to cook up new ideas. Many of those ideas come from students, past and present. Google’s algorithm to comb the web was designed by two Stanford grad students, and leaps in anesthesiology, DNA research, and software development have been made by other Stanford eggheads.
But never mind the next world-changing idea. Most innovation happens incrementally, over long stretches of time and among teams of patient researchers.
We caught up with one of them, Ben Tee, a budding electrical engineer researching self-healing skin. Tee and his colleagues are developing a type of chemical polymer that, when broken or punctured, uses an electric charge to repair itself in just a few hours. What’s the real-world application? Imagine a car of the future wrapped in a material that could piece itself back together after a fender bender. Or a cell phone that, when dropped, wouldn’t dent or shatter.
“We’re hoping to recreate the properties of human skin,” a material that has evolved to heal itself when punctured, Tee tells me. “All kinds of things break all the time. Imagine if they could repair themselves.”
From there we headed over to Stanford’s Product Realization Lab, a wood-shop on steroids where students devise and build new ideas. Joe Gettinger, a seasoned young inventor, was honing a product called the “Kiddush Fountain,” a suave drinking accessory to pour six glasses of wine—or shots, it doesn’t discriminate—at the same time.
Across the lab, Daniel Haarbuger was busy pouring silicone into a mold for a new kind of iPod case that could be mounted on bike handlebars. His prototype had a few kinks, but nothing that couldn’t be ironed out before the end of the semester.
Without a doubt, junior Agatha Bacelar was having the most fun. Modern jump roping requires three people (two to hold the rope and one to jump). With a device mounted on a tree that mimics the flicking wrist of a human jump rope holder, Bacelar’s grand scheme is to innovate out that third person, making it possible for two people to double Dutch—and free up time for that obsolete third person.
In practice, that meant just the two of us could try it out. After a few embarrassing starts, I quickly retained the jump rope knack I had somewhere around fifth grade. Not bad, Bacelar told me. Easy for her to say. She was once a nationally ranked rope-jumper.