The people who collect data to help address climate change, develop human-to-computer interfaces and empower medical professionals and patients to make better choices often have one thing in common—science fair participation. On the third day of the Virtual Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Maya Ajmera spoke to three former ISEF finalists: Paige Brown (ISEF 2015-2016, STS 2016), Founder and CEO, WindBorne Systems; David Holz (ISEF 2006), CTO and co-founder of Leap Motion and Ramji Srinivasan (ISEF 1999), co-founder and former CEO of Counsyl. Even during a pandemic, they see opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship to help find solutions.
For Paige, David and Ramji, competing at ISEF laid the foundation for their entrepreneurial success. Paige’s research on mitigating storm water waste turned her onto the ways climate affects people on a day-to-day basis. “It also got me out of my shell, taught me the way to channel my curiosity,” she reflected. She learned how to be a good storyteller as a means to get people to care about her work. David agreed on the importance of storytelling in science communication: “You have to be able to explain what you did.”
The panelists recognized that collaboration contributes to entrepreneurial success as well. “Developing and cultivating relationships with peers in your fields can be important,” David said. Paige and Ramji elaborated on another key connection to establish—cultivating a rapport with would-be customers. “You have to know the purpose of what you’re doing and there has to be a real-world need for what you’re creating,” said Paige. For Ramji, by knowing “what customers need, you can back-solve, having a very specific use case in mind.”
Although finalists are experiencing a virtual ISEF this year, against the backdrop of a global crisis, all is not lost. Ramji hopes students can adopt a “no-excuses” mentality with resilience. “No matter what, the world needs to go on and their work is urgently needed.” Paige added, “innovation comes from moments of pressure and this intense moment of pressure can motivate students to dedicate months, if not years, of their lives to work that can translate into real-world impact.” David assured attendees that young people will receive support that transcends the science fair environment. “You have our support, out there, it’s not fake. You are all real stars.”
In fact, dealing with uncertainty is something all entrepreneurs have to do. Paige copes through scientific inquiry. To assess the novel coronavirus, for example, she’s been reading lots of papers. “Understanding the scientific and sociological sides of it is how I’m arming myself against that uncertainty.” David reminded students to stay calm when things are in flux. “Use this moment in time to do something that’s exciting and see it as an opportunity.” Ramji had a similar view: “I am a perennial optimist about the world and believe in our ability to recover and improve from this. There are many things out of our control, so we should try to stay focused on our own work and missions.”
With today’s ever-evolving challenges, it can be easy to feel resigned, but this select group of Society alumni believe there are ways we can leverage science with a future forward mindset to transform our circumstances for the better. As David puts it, “There’s been a lot of times in human history where we had a lot of hardship. We’ve conquered those things and this isn’t the worst thing we have to overcome.” To persevere, he implored young people to imagine the future, see what’s missing and then build. “Rather than learning any one particular skill, focus on demonstrating that you can learn quickly and adapt.” And if any aspiring young entrepreneur or innovator needs motivation, Ramji pointed out that they can always seek guidance to find hope and forge ahead.
If you missed the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Panel, you can register for Virtual Regeneron ISEF today to view the session on our online platform through June 5.