Innovators are often driven by a playful sense of adventure to make an impact. For some, planting flags in uncharted inventive territory is the chief thrill. Others innovate for financial reward. Still others just can’t keep away from a tantalizing problem. For Leslie Field–who obtained her Bachelor’s and Master’s from MIT in chemical engineering, followed by an MS and PhD from UC Berkeley in electrical engineering and computer science—it’s about bettering the world.
Over four decades, Dr. Field has left her mark as a woman on innovation. Along the way to authoring 54 patents and founding Ice911 and SmallTech Consulting, whose staff in 2006 was originally–and not accidentally–almost all women (and one stay-at-home Dad), she’s advanced technology across many fields: from the oil industry and micro-electromechanical systems, to inkjet printers and medical devices, to planet-saving polar ice-melt retardants. And for a decade she has inspired her graduate and undergraduate students at Stanford in her Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Climate Change course to make similarly positive impacts on the world.
“When I was at HP Labs, I had a wonderful mentor who had a meme she shared with those of us working to make a difference: ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ That’s always stuck with me,” – Dr. Field.
She is a natural practitioner of what Xinova Founder and CEO, Edward Jung calls Mindful Innovation—the development of technology for the betterment of humanity.
“I’m seeing a lot of idealism in engineering these days,” she continued. “My colleagues at Small Tech and my students are excited when they can work on something that will revolutionize health care or solve a climate problem. I have the privilege and the pleasure of being a part of that.”
Dr. Field laughs about it now, but she’s had to work extremely hard and carve her own path as a woman in engineering. Before establishing her own companies, inspiring scores of Stanford graduate students, and authoring 54 patents, Dr. Field considered diverse career options. Not wanting to go on for her PhD right after her BS and MS, she took some time to investigate the artistic career in California she’d considered as a teenager on the East Coast. She was a woman; she was creative; she was an engineer. Such a mix was rare in the 1970s, and there weren’t many female role models to encourage her. So, fresh off obtaining her undergraduate and graduate degrees in merely four years from MIT, Dr. Field asked the PhD programs to wait a year, got her driver’s license, and drove across the country.
“I wanted to go and work at an art gallery, maybe even start out sweeping the floors, and see If art was what I really wanted,” said Dr. Field. “So I got out here to California for, I thought, 6 months, and I’m still here.”
Billion-dollar impacts and doing good
She really liked California and, seeking a longer-term job, Dr. Field found an R&D opening with Chevron working in catalysis. The interdisciplinary nature of her work was appealing. While there she worked on various projects including getting the lead out of gasoline, creating a safer lab for technicians and engineers making test batches of catalysts for R&D work, and on two separate projects where she authored patents that would ultimately have billion-dollar industry impacts. She left Chevron and entered an entirely new field for her PhD at UC Berkeley, where she completed her doctoral thesis on fluid actuation of silicon micromachined gears and rotors.
Computer science and electrical engineering represented an attractive change because something new and important could be created almost from scratch, like Hewlett and Packard had done in a garage; whereas the oil industry required a massive embedded infrastructure. After her PhD she went to work for Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, where in addition to being the Project Leader for Micromechanics and numerous projects in MEMS, she invented yet another billion-dollar-impact idea, this time involving fluid dynamics for printing technology.
The impact of her ideas on her respective industries garnered respect from even her crustier colleagues in male-dominated fields. The young engineer was inspired to become what she’d really always wanted to be since she was 10 years old: an inventor.
I later found out my inventions had billion-dollar impacts at Chevron
“It’s just so satisfying,” said Dr. Field. “I entered as the second professional woman by two weeks in this large, large organization at Chevron; was younger than everyone else, with a Master’s when almost everyone else had their PhD, and worried that ‘I don’t know anything yet.’ But a kind colleague pointed out that within six months I would be an expert in what I was researching, and would know something no one else did – and he was right, it was true. I presented my work six months later and it was new and people listened to me. I later found out my inventions had billion-dollar impacts at Chevron (and later at HP).”
But it really wasn’t about the money. “My goals at Chevron were to get lead out of gasoline and to keep us out of foreign wars – to do some good.”
“The most gratifying thing I’ve come up with”
Dr. Field had a talent for beating the odds from early on in her career as one of very few women in work groups full of men at MIT, Chevron, Berkeley and HP. And yet she succeeded again and again and again. Her interdisciplinary approach and track record of doing the extraordinary emboldened her to take on the world’s greatest, most complicated problem: global warming.
She experienced serious concern for the future after watching Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” The changes were coming far faster than she’d realized, and clearly would have big effects in her own children’s lifetime. So she established an organization with other idealistic innovators to work on global climate change. Focused on slowing polar ice melt, perhaps the greatest lever of climate change, she framed the problem with a materials science approach. This enabled her to attack the challenge in an area in which she had built a vast skill set.
Her eureka moment tied together many threads of knowledge for a potentially transformative materials choice: reflective sand. If hollow glass silica microspheres were layered over young ice, the melt-rate would slow. This relatively straightforward technology could restore the reflective Arctic Ice shield that has helped keep the planet cool until recent decades. She could actually save the polar ice.
“That is the most gratifying invention I’ve come up with,” she said, reminiscing about some of the not-so-great materials choices she had considered on the way to the right choice. “This looks like the most important concept I’ve ever come up with. It will potentially give my kids a future… A lot of people saw ‘Inconvenient Truth’ and got depressed, but for me it activated the “Mama Bear” in me, wanting to give my kids a decent future. The disappearance of Arctic Ice has a direct link to the devastating wildfires and droughts we are suffering In California – and rebuilding the Ice can save lives.”
I’ve heard it articulated that it may be the women working in climate change who will create some of the most effective solutions because, even more than men, we tend to look at the future in terms of what it’s going to be like for our kids.
Inventing a better environment for invention
Before setting about saving the polar ice caps for everyone, including her own children, Dr. Field had started a new project-based business model for working-mom innovators like herself who needed flexible hours to balance kids and work. With SmallTech Consulting, she created a business culture that worked for innovative women (and men) who wanted to commit themselves body and soul to projects that have greater purpose.
“I established my first consultancy after my then-2-year-old asked me, ‘Mommy, can you be my nanny?’ I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘Will you take care of me and take me to the park?’ And I thought, ‘Rip!’ It was heartbreaking. So I started my own consultancy and worked more flexible hours so I could balance those needs of kids and work … Eventually, I networked with other stellar women PhDs in similar situations from HP and Agilent Labs, and we formed SmallTech.”
As a leader and entrepreneur, Dr. Field attracts innovators who are fanatical about quality and meaning in their work. A recent addition to the SmallTech team Is her electrical engineer husband and frequent co-inventor, Phillip W. Barth, PhD, who Dr. Field met at HP. The husband-wife team have, coincidentally, both been named on 54 patents to date but it’s not a contest. They just love doing things that no one’s done before, inventing together and apart.
“We were both at HP Labs and Agilent Labs for years, where we were co-inventors on several inventions while we also invented independently of one another,” said Dr. Barth, who has an M.S. and PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford. “Then Leslie left Agilent Labs and proceeded to found MEMS Insight, SmallTech Consulting, and Ice911 while I continued at Agilent and eventually joined her in 2015 at SmallTech, where I’ve been inventing for Xinova and others for a while now.”
“Small Tech has an idealistic crew,” said Dr. Field. “It’s fun, because so much of invention is about a sense of improvisation, sometimes feeling like play… This engineering, this playfulness, this art is so satisfying. When you get something right, you’re immersed in that flow that comes when you’re doing something creative and it’s going well. It’s like when a painting was going really well (back when I used to have time to paint). It’s just that natural urge to create.”
Inventors often are featured in comic books as heroes or super villains. In real life, it’s not so different. The gift of innovation contains the power to shape the environment and people’s lives; the innovator must choose how to apply that power. It’s comforting to know that more and more are practicing mindful innovation, and coming together to use their powers to do good across many industries.
“While Leslie is focused, in her work other than at SmallTech, on saving arctic ice and mitigating climate change, I’m presently focused on new peristaltic pump technology, which I hope can help both kidney patients and heart patients,” said Dr. Barth. “The new pump technology replaces the soft, plasticizer-filled, particle-shedding tubing presently used in peristaltic blood pumps with stiff, no-plasticizer channels, which are more biocompatible and, I hope, better for the patients.”
For Dr. Field, the adventure that began with a road trip across the country never really ended. It continues to push boundaries and enter new territories, fueled by her passion for innovation.
“I’m having adventures I never would have dreamed of as a young woman. At Ice911, we are working in the Arctic, in Barrow Alaska, to test out the reflective sand technology to preserve and restore ice. As part of that, I learned to drive a snow mobile from an Inupiat Eskimo we work with on our testing. I have walked on the frozen Arctic ocean, have worked at times in seemingly endless twilight, have seen a polar bear and the aurora borealis, and have met the most incredible people close to home and all over the world. You never know what life will throw at you when you’re doing work like this, aimed at saving lives today, and saving the future for our kids.”
I’m having adventures I never would have dreamed of as a young woman.
Connect with Leslie Field
PO Box #30873
Seattle, WA 98113
Xinova Japan GK
Yaesu Mitsui Building 6F
2-7-2 Yaesu, Chuo-ku
Tokyo 104-0028 Japan
10th floor, Golfzone Tower
Seoul 06072, Korea
+82 2 6952 8840
Erottajankatu 5 A 4
Affiliate offices in Tel Aviv & Vienna