Our perspective is typically limited by either the tools we use, or our senses, or our thought patterns. But with an electron microscope, at least, things are a bit different. Here is one tool that lets you so effortlessly and smoothly zoom in and out over many orders of magnitude. And if it’s so easy with this one tool, maybe it’s possible in other situations as well, given the right approach…”
by Emeka Alozie
Innovation requires adjusting one’s perspective to grasp the problem. While using electron microscopes for the first time, Mateusz Bryning, PhD, was fascinated with how adjusting magnifications would reveal an object’s finest details or, at a lower magnification, the way it interacted within a greater context. He could very quickly alter his view on something in order to see the forest from the trees and back again.
As a successful inventor, he’s learned that altering his perspective on problems in a similar way is a critical intellectual approach to finding solutions in fields like nanotechnology, complex fluids or materials sciences. No wonder he’s been a huge asset to Xinova as a premier innovator within our network.
“We’re reared to think very linearly,” said Mateusz, CTO at Zikon, who for over 10 years has been discovering, developing and transferring new materials technology into commercial applications. “So much so that it is often tempting to follow singular, well-defined paths to things like gaining knowledge and career success. However, looking closely at the natural world, you learn rather quickly that there is no one way. When you look at biology, there are many effective solutions to the same problem of survival, and what works one day sometimes does not work the next. From a human perspective, some of nature’s solutions are admittedly more appealing than others at any point in time, and so we have to be able to adjust our perspectives and look beyond the old well-trodden paths to ensure our continued survival and prosperity.”
His mind racing with ideas, a young Mateusz couldn’t wait to get home from the structure of school to work on his many projects. Inspired by his chemist mom and physicist dad, he was always interested in studying the world around him. His innate curiosity was only amplified by the energy of growing up in Silicon Valley in the 90s, at a time when everyone was optimistic about science, particularly how new materials could change the frontier of the tech world.
It was an era when computers were getting much faster, and materials science was advancing at a rapid pace; ripe for the right kind of mind to really shape the industry. For Mateusz, who was fascinated by nanotechnology, the intellectual climate within Silicon Valley bustled with the kind of creativity and opportunity to make him want to transform his passion into a career.
Although Mateusz frequently tinkered with different technologies and questioned their “how” and “why”, it wasn’t until going deeper into his own research as a grad student that Mateusz realized the extent to which his perspective could shape observations of the world around him. The first time he used an electron microscope really influenced him.
“You twist a knob to 10x, 1000x, 100,000x magnification and all of a sudden you’re able to notice the little things and the big things. This is an astonishing dynamic range that lets you see the big picture and look into the specifics with very little effort going back and forth.”
What surprised him the most about the electron microscope was just how easy it is to change perspective smoothly, something that is not typical in everyday life.
“Usually it’s hard to keep a consistent level of detail when moving between very different scales. This similar way of viewing the lens of perspectives can be demonstrated in other type of disconnects such as, bulk material properties vs. atomic structure properties, etc.”
For him, defining the problem and providing solutions is a matter of adjusting the lens.
Soon after graduate school, Mateusz worked at Zikon with his father and Dr. Remy Cromer, a long time family friend and Xinova innovator. The opportunity felt right. He had recently graduated and after doing significant research in the field — along with helping secure funds to create the company — it all made sense for him to join.
He preferred a small company because it allowed him to wear many hats. To him, every little detail at a small company is magnified to the Nth degree. This ultimately provided him with a wider perspective on how things work and interact: how technology works with technology, and how different business units operate together with other business units. Mostly he learned that everything is his responsibility.
“All the different problems, from writing proposals and reports, to understanding the market and making sense of demand, were mine to solve. Especially in the display industry, where you’re competing with huge companies each with large distribution, economies of scale, and budgets.”
Fresh out of graduate school and now dipping his toes into the real world, Mateusz had to put his way of innovation to the test at a challenging time. The recession choked off investment capital and product development resources for Zikon, impeding their progress to scale up.
But working through the technical problems inherent in displays and continuously solving commercial challenges made him a better innovator and entrepreneur.
“Displays are very tricky, you need a high level of perfection. Anyone can spot one dead pixel in a million good ones from a mile away, but getting that last pixel to work is very challenging.”
Mateusz realized that though it was daunting to beat the giant manufacturers, it wasn’t impossible. The trick was to resolve a fundamental tension between financial and technical problems. On the one hand, the question of capital came up: in a traditional manufacturing approach, it could take billions to move from lab to fab and create a specialized lab. On the other hand, the question of technology came up: how does one challenge a mature display technology like liquid crystal displays with a potentially superior technology, but one that is still rough around the edges? In the middle of a difficult situation, he was able to find relief by looking closely at the available resources and figuring out how to make them work.
“At the time the infrastructure to manufacture displays was already all in Asia. Nobody would invest such large sums on manufacturing here, when the whole ecosystem was already mature in another place, and trying to compete, or even effectively collaborate with, the large Asian manufacturers was difficult or impossible. They were focused on the next product cycle, perhaps six months out. We needed a longer term view.”
Realizing that neither collaboration nor head-on competition was the way to go, he was able to identify a different opportunity for Zikon. Zikon’s technology didn’t actually need billion dollar fabs. The company could fabricate the displays using much less expensive tools like inkjet printers. Instead of focusing on throughput and ever-larger screen sizes like the large manufacturers, they would focus instead on highly customizable displays that could be fabricated independently of the large factories, perhaps even at a local print shop.
“What the process taught us is how to make a difficult project work on a limited budget.”
In this way he was able to demonstrate his ability to innovate, by understanding how to focus on all the functions of his business. Seeing through the perspectives of finance, marketing, business, as well as innovative technology, he was able to harness the resources needed to stay afloat in a trying time. Essentially, he ensured survival by shifting his perspective.
When looking at innovation through this lens, you can see why Xinova appeals to Mateusz.
“It encourages and supports this type of thinking across different scales, disciplines, etc., by bringing together people with so many different backgrounds and perspectives, in a way that few (or no?) other organizations can.”
Connect with Mateusz Bryning
311 ½ Occidental Ave S
Seattle, WA 98104
+1 (206) 800-2678
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