Nowhere is innovation more evident than in the nonprofit sector. Case-in-point CappSci, a nonprofit applied science company created by engineer and entrepreneur Dr. Ted Caplow and his wife, former ballerina Pascale van Kipnis Caplow. CappSci made headlines in 2013 with the $1 million Caplow Children's Prize, the largest prize dedicated to saving the lives of children under five. This week, CappSci teamed with the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science to launch the CappSci Inventor program, a series of inventors-in-residence contests to develop solutions for problems plaguing health and the environment (one for the best invention to restore coral reefs, the other to help people reduce their exposure to carcinogens). CappSci's mission is to apply science to global challenges, linking the power of competition with the hyper-connectivity of the global information age. I sat down with CappSci's founder to get his take on how to foster a culture of innovation, both at his company and beyond, and what he's learned from his journey.
Name/Position/Company/Number Of Employees
Ted Caplow / CEO / CappSci / staff of four
How has innovation changed the way you do business? What was your 'aha' moment?
Innovation is like putting together two pieces of a puzzle that don't appear to go together. Combining ideas from different fields has become my most powerful and direct tool for driving towards the solution to a problem. I tried to go to graduate school in the same field I studied in college, and couldn't get in. I switched fields completely, from social science to mechanical engineering, and I was welcomed with open arms.
What sort of solutions are you looking for to help the environmental sectors?
Coral reefs are among the world's most concentrated biodiversity hotspots, covering a small fraction of the ocean floor yet providing habitat for 25% of the world's fish species. Locally, the Florida reef is the third longest barrier reef in the world, stretching 200 miles along the Atlantic Coast. In the Caribbean, more than half of the reefs living in the 1970s are dead today, one-sixth of the original reef area. The scientific community expects further losses. Intervention to stabilize and restore a functional coral reef ecosystem, such as manual planting of coral fragments by divers, have been successful at demonstrating feasibility of reef restoration but are impractical to apply on a very large scale. Our challenge is to scale-up coral reef restoration. Projects may promote growth, prevent death, or tackle the issue in any other logical, justified way. Inventions must be cost-effective, practical to implement, and suitable for development and testing in a public science museum. The winner will receive $100,000 in funding and a 12-18 month residency as a CappSci Inventor at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami, Florida. Winners will build-out their technology during their residency, while engaging the public through an interactive exhibit.
And for health?
That's the CappSci Carcinogen Prize. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 4 Americans will die from cancer. The problem is most carcinogens cannot be detected by human senses. Whereas lifestyle factors leading to cancer are typically easy to identify, it is much more difficult for a person to control their exposure to carcinogens. Our challenge at CappSci is to foster the development of an innovative technology to empower people to detect and or avoid carcinogens. Solutions must be accurate, highly portable, affordable to consumers, and suitable for testing in a public science museum. If this is something that interests you, I highly encourage you to apply. Again, this project is part of a five-year, $1 million competitive prize program to develop innovative technology in the health and environmental sectors. Applications are open worldwide.
What is the importance of competitions like this? How does it drive creative learning and novel concepts and thinking?
Effective competitions depend on two things: first, an open playing field so out-of-the box solutions can come to light, because these types of solutions can lead to rapid change in the way a problem is perceived and approached. Second, a clear statement of the goal of the competition, and a means to calculate or measure progress towards that goal. Competitions constructed in this manner are inclusive, and encourage broad participation in the collective pursuit of answers. At the same time, they remaining tightly focused, ensuring that intellectual efforts are not wasted and students and the public do not become confused and discouraged in the face of large and complex problems (such as climate change, ecosystem decay, fatal diseases, etc).
How will the CappSci Inventor program stimulate innovation locally? Nationally?
Through preparing an application for a prize of this kind, inventors and innovators are strengthened in their intellectual work and encouraged to be more organized in their presentation of it. The incentive of winning $100,000 and a year-long job in Miami should be encouraging for innovators, while the social aspects of the contest--it's open publicly and comments on the applications can be posted, viewed, and shared online--helps bring innovators together. The program will also stimulate innovation here in Miami through direct interaction between the public and the CappSci Inventors at Frost Science. This interaction will be a two-way street, with ideas flowing from the public to the Inventor as well as from the Inventor to the public, and students will be a large part of the effective audience as well.
CappSci's mission is to apply science to globally significant challenges, and solving them by combining people, knowledge, capital, and the power of competition. In layman's terms, how can an inventor achieve this, and how does CappSci facilitate the process?
When we offer a prize competition, we are in effect offering capital to the best person and the best idea to solve the problem that we have laid out. We are trying to spend that capital as efficiently as possible, by holding an inclusive yet focused competition to find the idea, and the individual, likely to make the greatest progress toward our goal. In order to make this process effective, we have to be able to quantify the potential of the idea to act upon the problem, so we typically ask our applicants to calculate their impact per dollar invested.
How do you judge projects?
The model is based on the belief that we live in a time when the internet has evolved to a sufficiently pervasive role in society that truly valuable ideas can be both sourced from, and evaluated by, large networks of connected individuals. We judge applicants via a combination of crowd-based comments and opinion, expert judges working remotely, and internal filtering and evaluation, but in all of those phases the applicants (and their ideas) are never evaluated in a vacuum, but always within a context of their professional associations and their presence and prior work available online. This is the meaning of the digital information age. In simple terms, we use competition to find the best idea, then we use the residency at Frost Science to power that idea forward.
What lesson do you have for young entrepreneurs?
Diversify yourself intellectually. You don't need to know everything, but you can't afford to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand any field of knowledge. An entrepreneur must have a handle on the science behind their sphere of business, be competent at basic accounting, and be able to writing succinctly and with impact. Once you have the tools in place, break down your plans into a series of steps and get going. Believe in yourself, but surround yourself with reliable and optimistic talent.
The biggest hurdle every creator must tackle?
What challenges did you face initially to starting CappSci? How did you overcome them?
I was missing a lot of technical preparation in engineering, but hard work and study made up lost ground quickly. Later, when I launched my first public technology demonstration project (the Science Barge), I faced a daunting array of regulatory and political obstacles. My interdisciplinary background allowed me to communicate effectively and credibly with gatekeepers and decision makers alike. The difference in me now is that I have a clearer focus on my goals, and I'm pickier about choosing them, because I've learned that all projects take more time and energy than we predict, and both are precious.
Is failure a myth, or does it really help you grow? When is failure actually bad?
All experience helps you grow. The only thing better than failure is success. Failure is bad when it hurts the people around you, or when it saps your will to succeed.
Did you ever think you weren't going to make it? And how did you overcome self-doubt?
I have no idea if I'm going to make it. I'm driven every day by dissatisfaction with my progress. I'm not sure what making it feels like. Fools overcome self-doubt and then usually drive too fast or drink too much.
What is your motivation?
To find the limits of my potential, and to make my children proud of me.
What innovation do you want to see, both in your company, business and beyond?
I like big thinkers. I'm an unabashed Star Wars fan. I believe in an expansionist destiny for humanity, but I think we must also grow within ourselves, to create the conditions for a happier existence and a more comforting journey toward mortality.
How has change helped foster a better work culture, and improve peoples' lives?
Cloud computing and smart phones have enabled me to run multiple business simultaneously while conducting a reasonable semblance of family life.
What's next for you?
I have two year-old triplets plus a seven year-old, so what's next for me is hopefully more sleep! Professionally, my next project is to get back into engineering mode on a series of compelling prototype design projects. We're sourcing these projects by running a series of prize competitions at CappSci to crowdsource potential solutions to major challenges such as coral reef decline and exposure to carcinogens. Our model commingles philanthropy and technology development in a way that I find very exciting and satisfying. It's somewhere between interdisciplinary and undisciplined, just like me.