My name is Dmitry Tipkin – “My favorite challenge I worked on was for NASA concerning the radiation safety for trips to Mars. I proposed an engineering solution about a special type of magnetic field for concentration of high energy protons in special places inside the ship instead of full redirection of them.”
I was born in Russia, Tver Region, in the small town of Redkino on May 21st 1968. During my school years my main subject of interest was chemistry. As a schoolboy I actively participated in so-called school scholars Olympiads and reached second place in a regional competitions. After graduating from high school, I was accepted to the Moscow Institute of Physics of Technology (sometimes called “Russian MIT”) – one of the top Russian technical universities. The department was Molecular and Chemical Physics. I graduated with honors and completed a diploma specializing in electron paramagnetic resonance. I defended my PhD dissertation, devoted to applications of electron paramagnetic resonance in different areas, like mechanochemistry, conducting polymers, high-temperature superconducting ceramics.
From here I worked at various universities before returning to Russia working at the Institute of Chemical Physics and Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics in Chernogolovka. From 2006 I worked permanently in USA: first at Cornell University then at Dartmouth College. All my work was centered around free radicals and detection of them by electron paramagnetic resonance (applications and development of hardware). A few years later I found work for a US manufacturer of the detectors for high energy particles.
My comfort zone is the area of my expertise which is engineering, physics, chemistry. My more recent work in biology and medicine biomedical problems mean that these areas are now approaching into my comfort zone as well. There are challenges where new markets for existing products may be solved through preliminary analysis of the existing product. As soon as the physical and chemical characteristics are evaluated (I call my comfort zone), the new application or market may be guessed (out of my comfort zone). In a sense, even if a challenge is an the absolutely new area or topic for example pure politics, I make a start on the preliminary research of looking around the challenge to generate more information for analysis rather than looking for parallels. In the last few years (outside of the crowdsourcing platform) I’ve been involved in finding solutions to more complex problems in the field of “new physics” – dark matter, quantum entanglement, neutron enigma, unification of wave and particle through matter waves and some other hypothesis.
I have been an active solver for over 20 years. I’ve always been interested in commercialization of scientific ideas. In the early days, I thought about a database of ideas in different topics and industries being organized as an exhibition: you pay your entrance fee and then you’re free to browse everything you find! So, I searched in Altavista (in a pre-Google time!) and the first result was the crowdsourcing platform. I immediately registered and started participating. This business model however was undoubtedly better than what I had in mind. I found the challenges very interesting and relatively easy to solve.
I remember the first challenge I won quite clearly. It was about new ideas for utilizing carbon dioxide solution in water and I proposed the use of silicate instead of the obvious calcium dioxide. A solution of carbon dioxide in water is a stronger acid and will drive silicon oxide out of silicate forming the complex mineral which is possible to use in bricks manufacturing.
My favorite challenge I worked on was for NASA concerning the radiation safety for trips to Mars. I proposed an engineering solution about a special type of magnetic field for concentration of high energy protons in special places inside the ship instead of full redirection of them. My solution was rejected. But what made this challenge my favorite, is that in my work at Dartmouth College somewhat correlated or could be applied to this challenge in a different way. Unfortunately, when this, completely new and unexpected solution appeared, NASA had already closed the challenge for new ways of radiation damage countermeasures.
The most unusual problem I tried to solve was the challenge where it was necessary to invent some anti-corruption scheme in science. My idea that any anti-corruption scheme in science will be the corruption scheme itself was of course rejected and I remember this challenge as an example of something unusual but also not really challenging.
A good challenge usually involves a lot of preliminary work done by the company and a clear description of previous attempts to solve their issues – this makes it really complex and challenging (the necessity to invent something new in an already crowded field). On the contrary, challenges with very broad description are not usually as interesting to me because some solution may be “googled” easily and it is sometimes not entirely clear why the business is looking for help on such a seemingly simple problem.
I once participated in a challenge as a member of the jury because they needed top Solvers to help them in identifying some of the best solutions in the early stages. I would not be able to participate in the challenge (obviously), however I instantly came up with my own solution to compare with the final results from others. I guessed one of the finalist’s answers to approximately 75% accuracy – they used the same chemistry but different reagents. The other 19 finalists’ submissions were completely new ideas for me. This just shows that even a top Solver by no means can predict all the ways to solve a single problem. It emphasizes important fact: it is difficult to imagine a problem, which has exactly one solution. Modern technology is so developed, usually the same problem may be solved in a multitude of ways. For an amateur solver it would be important to understand that even if your solution was undoubtedly correct, a competitor may have invented something cheaper or of higher quality.
I think that Solvers need to be patient and also be prepared for a lot of failures before any encouraging result. I was only rewarded my first prize over 10 years after submitting my first solution. The competition is enormously strong and people with good solutions are submitting their ideas from all across the globe. As far as the winning solution is concerned it is very difficult to predict it when you submit a solution. My success rate is rather low, at around 5%. I’ve only once been absolutely sure that my solution would win. In the rest of the cases, my wins have been unexpected – it means that it is difficult to predict what company is looking for. The situation is very familiar to start-ups. Trying to predict a product of amazing popularity is difficult, in many cases it comes unexpectedly.
For me that “aha” moment exists in many solutions but again it is not predictable! Sometimes it comes after reading the problem and sometimes after hours of checking for the necessary information. Sometimes it is absent altogether. In this case you need to calculate a solution that would work, and no instantaneous ideas lead to such solution. I would say that is the hardest type of solution to come up with – one that doesn’t come to mind straight away.
I see being a Solver as more a hobby than a career despite the reward money I’ve won – although it does play some part I suppose! The most attractive part of working on a complex problem is the feeling of satisfaction after the solution is found. The overall experience may be compared with running a series of short sprints. It’s fast work, to research, to pick up the facts, generate a hypothesis, and then develop some simple calculations to check the relevance or validity of your hypothesis. If the result is satisfactory, the feeling of deep fulfillment arises – the problem is potentially solved. I do not consider myself a “super solver” because my rate of success is relatively low. Solving problems on the platform definitely develops inventiveness. There is no doubt people who solve problems through crowdsourcing and open innovation will soon start to apply the same approach everywhere. It offers proven results! It is near impossible to publish research or results in a decent journal in the physics industry, so right now I am trying to use open innovation as a way to offer the direction for a solution to a fundamental problem in physics.
Without this experience in crowdsourcing and open innovation, I would never have even tried to work outside of my areas of expertise. My experience in working on varied challenges over a number of years now has helped me in other areas of my personal development. I now find it easier to generate ideas about “dark matter” or unification of gravity and electromagnetism, or quantum entanglement, which were previously beyond my scope.
Extract from our book One Smart Crowd – How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.