Sundar Krishnamurty, the director of the Center for e-Design and a professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, leads a multidisciplinary team that received a 2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, award. The I-Corps program aims to prepare scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and broadens the impact of select NSF-funded projects. It is one of 100 awards for this year and the first such grant awarded to UMass Amherst. The project funded by the NSF builds upon a fundamental new way of thinking about innovation, tentatively called an “Innovation Accelerator” (AI), and replaces the minimally successful artificial intelligence techniques from the 1980s that were unable to get machines to be innovative by themselves.

Post-doctoral researcher Tony McCaffrey of the Center for e-Design is the team’s entrepreneurial lead, while Karen Utgoff, a market-oriented strategist, serves as a mentor from the business perspective.

The grant will support the Center for e-Design’s project entitled “Innovation Accelerator: A New Web-based Portal Software Tool to Find Disruptive Innovative Solutions.” The grant is aimed at helping to commercialize a product based on research done at the center: a human-machine synergism in which humans and machines complement each other during the innovation process.

“This [synergy] is accomplished,” as the proposal explains, “by carefully understanding the fundamental axis upon which all innovation turns: Every innovative solution is based upon at least one overlooked (i.e., obscure) feature of the problem. Humans and machines have different reasons for overlooking obscure features. Each partner in the human-machine interaction will help counter the other’s weaknesses.”

Researchers have thus far devised nearly two dozen innovation techniques that counteract the many cognitive reasons why humans overlook obscure features.

This IA technology has applications for STEM education, lawyers, the military, and engineers. The problem-solving model used in this method has the potential to be used to alter innovative education in STEM fields. Techniques developed through IA will be able to search databases more efficiently for similar solutions to an entered problem. There is potential for this technology to be used in a military setting for training forces to be more innovative problem-solvers in the field. Engineering applications of this technology could assist in moving projects more rapidly through research and development phases. This technology addresses a growing need to improve the innovation capabilities of individuals and organizations.

While knowledge gained from NSF-supported basic research frequently advances a particular field of science or engineering, some results also show immediate potential for broader applicability and impact in the commercial world. Such results may be translated through this program into technologies with near-term benefits for the economy and society.

Professor Krishnamurthy notes that, “Participation in I-Corps provides an opportunity to learn about commercialization methods that offer another route for disseminating our research beyond the usual vehicles of teaching students and publishing academic papers. It is a privilege to be part of this pioneering new National Science Foundation effort.” (October 2012)