Sometimes I specifically look for tasks for which tools don’t exist and try to build the tools just to build a new capability. In the long run, problems look different when you have different tools. When you have unique tools you can build unique solutions –Zeke Kruglick, PhD
There’s a reason why comic books feature inventors as superheroes so often. Their abilities capture the imagination with innovations that do things that would resemble super-powers if performed in spandex or iron suits: super speed, super strength, super intelligence, super healing, supersonic flight, deepwater diving, limitless communication… Innovators lit the spark that turned Homo Sapiens into Homo Deus.
Ezekiel “Zeke” Kruglick, PhD, has spent his life inventing things that push the boundaries of what’s possible, from his Jet Propulsion Laboratory work that earned him a NASA Space Act Award, to his work with DARPA that he can’t talk about much, and on to his consulting work across multiple industries. He stopped counting his number of patents after 300, but he has been informed he is sitting between 800 and 1000 today, making him one of the world’s most prolific active inventors. And while he is known to favor outdoor gear over a cape, his inventive feats stand to improve innumerable lives.
When asked what kinds of inventions he’s come up with to save the world recently, several immediately come to mind.
“Well, there was a way to remove toxic metals from treatment water inspired by microbiology, and a way to use plants growing on a wall (a so called “green wall”) to filter air,” said Zeke, who received his PhD in Electrical Engineering / Computer Science from UC Berkeley and who, before founding technical consulting firm, Ardent Research, spent nine years as an idea generator and gatherer for DARPA–the Pentagon-funded think tank that spawned the internet, GPS, and autonomous vehicles. “And my more recent lab work with (Xinova) has shown a new high-performance technique to kill microbes in drinks using only carbon dioxide.”
Zeke also stands for truth and justice as an expert witness for patent trials. His perfect record is due in part to the fact that he only accepts cases that he believes in, be it for the claimant or the defendant.
“I pick the side that’s right so I don’t have to worry about anything except how it really works–using the truth scientifically from the engineering perspective.”
But this line of work also requires conveying complex scientific truth to non-experts. Zeke knows that his slides and presentation are clear and compelling when his school-age children give their approval. Zeke recently testified in a case that lasted seven years. During that work, he repeatedly presented to his children while developing 3-D models that would prove crucial to demonstrating key technical details at the heart of the case.
“Communication of technical concepts is at least as important as the science itself. It’s a hugely important skill for having any sort of impact,” he said, adding: “It’s interesting, I’ll test my slides on my kids and my daughter gives this great advice. She says, ‘Uh-uh, you are using too many pronouns and you are using too many details. We are losing track.’”
Like many great superheroes, Zeke is part of a dynamic duo. His wife, Phung Lam, PhD, is a medical researcher who shares his passion for fitness, healthy food–and invention. After putting their kids to bed, they often retire to their thinking couch to pore over gastronomy tomes and brainstorm ideas for healthy protein bars and low-sugar snacks. They’re a great team; inventing brings them together as a couple.
“After two decades of marriage and half that time working together at Ardent Research, we definitely have mutual trust and understanding of our complementary skill sets and of the unique pressures of this work,” said Phung, a former UCSD Medical School professor who has conducted research into nutrients important for pregnant women.
Zeke has two lab buildings for Ardent Research, built on land behind his house. The above-ground lab has the 3D printers, robotics, electronics bench, and cutting-edge computing systems. The subterranean “bat cave” lab is full of high pressure and vacuum systems, lasers, electronics, microscopes, chemical systems, materials fabrication, and more. Many of the tools are themselves custom 3d printed inventions. Pretty cool stuff.
“Sometimes I specifically look for tasks for which tools don’t exist and try to build the tools just to build a new capability. In the long run, problems look different when you have different tools. When you have unique tools you can build unique solutions.”
One notably unique tool and solution was conceived in Zeke’s kitchen. That’s where Phung first read the Xinova Request for Invention: Non-Ingredient Food Binding – which sought ways to bind together food bars with less sugar. The creative duo were inspired. This RFI melded their inventive interests with their healthy hobbies. Ultimately, it led to two licensed inventions under development with a well-funded and fully staffed R&D project.
“I am a fitness enthusiast and I try or make 20 different kinds of food bars a year, trying to find the right one with just the right proportion of protein and nutrients,” said Zeke. “We have kids, so we are constantly reading the ingredients of what we give them, and we are constantly trying to formulate the perfect healthy snack for them. So this invention represented something we have great synergy doing together.
Great tension demands great invention
Real inventions contain a contradiction. That is, the solution must be two things at once. This was no different. And for Zeke, identifying a real problem is like a mountain climber eyeing a majestic peak, or a surfer spotting a perfect break. It’s a challenge begging to be conquered.
I often go through technical literature and look for places where people say, ‘Since we can’t do X, we settle for…’ and try to figure out how to do the thing people think we can’t. I call it ‘shopping for problems.’
He saw the gaps between food particles as the core problem to be solved within the non-ingredient food binding RFI. The traditional binding process narrows those gaps by crushing the food particles together and bridging them by flooding the remaining space with sweetener glue.
There had to be another way. Finding it would result in a more natural food bar with less sugar and a fresh-out-of-the-kitchen quality. Zeke’s innovator-intuition was buzzing over the problem’s fundamental tension:
Zeke discussed it with his wife. They sat down with their dog on the thinking couch, pored over the literature and the ideas started to flow.
“What if I change those opposing needs by making a way that we can put the glue, the adhesive ingredient, at the right places, where each of the ingredients meet?” Zeke thought.
Up, up and away… eventually
In his lab, Zeke began testing new materials and methods. But each solution seemed to contain a fatal flaw. No, no, and way too expensive. One after another, the experiments failed.
“In the process of brainstorming, we discarded some interesting out-of-the-box ideas that were just too complicated to implement,” said Phung.
3D models and mechanisms began piling up. Zeke was getting frustrated.
“After throwing away 20 different ideas, I was thinking I’d never come up with anything,” said Zeke. “Then I stopped thinking about it at all. And right away it came to me.”
Getting everything to position itself just right required a careful engineering of surface tension, viscosity, temperature profile, and ingredients, but once the recipe was tuned in it worked every time.
They’d hit the sweet spot of invention. And they knew it straight off. Eureka.
“Finding a doable solution that no one has ever done turned out to be quite hard!” said Phung. “We knew we were on to something when we realized that Zeke’s ideas were elegantly doable!”
And they weren’t done. Zeke took a page out of cutting-edge robotics for another invention for the same RFI Zeke. Everyone at Xinova immediately recognized the idea as brilliant and pushed it through to conceptualization. Xinova prototype whiz Ben Millar got his hands on the idea in Australia and made a rig proving its scalability. In the next few years, a major snack brand may be producing natural snack bars at unprecedented scale. Goodbye hard slabs. Hello gourmet nutrition bar.
The resulting two licensing deals represent sizable potential royalties depending on the commercial scale of the inventions. And they’ll make the world a little healthier, too. His kids can’t wait to see them on store shelves.
“We took the kids to Disney World and Kennedy Space Center the week after we found out about the licensing deal,” he said.
It was the perfect spot for this family’s celebration. Invention is a core value they share as a family.
“We gave our daughter a pink lab coat a while ago that she’s allowed to wear while doing science or watching space launches,” said Zeke. “She has a penchant for chemistry, and while we were making foam (for an ultimately successful invention), she was developing her own “slime” recipe in her pink lab coat and took first place in her science fair with it. She brought the lab coat to Kennedy space center and wore it through many exhibits. My son is specializing more toward the robotics side and we have a (mostly) 3d printed delta-bot that he has controlled with python.”
Zeke’s backstory contains not just praise for his top-notch solution reports and outstanding innovations, but some pretty great personal anecdotes as well. One member of Xinova upper management noted that Zeke is the type who’d let you know if you overpaid him $20 or $20,000; and he’d let you know if you underpaid him, too. He once remarked that he’d never known ringing the NASDAQ bell was on his bucket list until after doing it. He’s also a licensed pilot who’s flown light planes and antique fighters; a skilled scuba-diver; and he’s even trained as a blacksmith along with his wife.
“I’ve always been enthusiastic to learn new things and explore new places,” said Zeke, adding that he favors the technical aspects of his hobbies. He prefers diving in navigation-challenging environments where he must use a compass and count his kicks while doing trigonometry in his head. And his approach to flying entails applying science to reach greater precision.
“I like radio navigation and short field landings and taxi takeoff. Once you know the physics and learn the math, you can do very detailed and interesting things. I learned the math of ground effect and being on the back side of the power curve, which is where people do not usually fly planes… As long as you’re not afraid of rapidly doing square roots in your head then you can actually fly the plane a lot better.”
Then there was the time a truck slammed into he and another Xinova employee’s car, totaling it and throwing it across multiple lanes. Zeke came to the office looking a bit stunned and admitted he’d just been in an accident. When asked the severity, Zeke reported, “I looked down and knew it wasn’t right that the metal from the door was wrapped around my leg.” But he insisted on finishing some work before allowing himself to be given a ride to the hospital. During recovery, he bought a weight bench and discovered a passion for weight lifting in his garage—keeping metrics on his progress of course.
While the accident precluded leaping tall buildings in a single bound, Zeke’s cerebrally-located super powers have remained intact. And the experience instilled a passion for health and fitness that may have indirectly resulted in the double-licensing deals for the nutrition bar.
Zeke is known through his consultancy work as a technical guru. His healthy snack bar invention is a perfect example of why: he brings cutting edge technical expertise from different fields into industries to open up new possibilities. Many companies seek him out for adopting or inventing new technologies, or rationalizing and optimizing existing technology. More and more, he puts skin in the game by investing in a company and serving at the advisory level. For instance, he rang the NASDAQ bell with Image Sensing Systems, in whom he invested his own capital and then came onboard to help advance their technology past the state of the art.
“It’s really interesting to find an industry where the technology might be decades old, and then to be able to go into that industry and push it a bit beyond the current state of the art by bringing in a few ideas.”
Iron Man’s core super-technology was Arc Reactor energy; ideas fuel real-life innovators’ super power. The difference between innovators in comics and in reality is that ideas can be shared, and the ability to generate great ideas to solve big problems can be taught. This is true in the company context as well as the classroom setting, where Zeke dedicates much of his spare time teaching science and developing and implementing computing curriculum for local schools.
Perhaps as innovators spread their ideas, planet Earth will be populated by super heroes.
Read Zeke’s graphic novel: Innovation Love Story
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