Generalists like myself build up a solid base of knowledge of physical properties and techniques used across multiple industries and sciences and, when given a problem to solve, you give yourself a quick crash course in that problem’s field. While learning about it, you look for places you can implement the principles and techniques and designs you know from other fields in any way you can, in any combination. There’s always something that can be done.”
While between innovation projects with Xinova, Ben Millar locked up his lab in Sydney and flew to Kabul with a few mates for a ski trip. They found a guide, took precautions to blend in, and made their way to the rugged peaks of central Afghanistan. The adventure paid off with beautiful scenery and pristine, deep snow. After the epic journey, Millar returned to his lab a little richer in travel and skiing experience.
“I’ve got a thing for traveling to challenging places,” said Millar with a laugh, rattling off a four-wheel adventure up the length of Africa, more skiing in Iran, and extreme sports destinations around Sydney for canyoning, caving, and rock climbing. “There’s some problem solving involved in that sort of thing, but it’s more about planning and decision making. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time in my workshop in my free time.”
The symmetry between traveling and inventing in uncharted territory is compelling. But Millar’s journey to becoming a full-time inventor goes back much further, to growing up on his family farm in rural Australia. The farm offered lots of equipment to tinker with and plenty of space to dream and play in. It gave him a creative drive to go with a passion for science that led him to a bachelor’s in Materials Science and Engineering – Physical Metallurgy at University New South Wales.
He was fascinated by the materials, processes and physics underlying the way stuff works across fields and industries. Constantly tinkering and learning: Millar didn’t know it at the time, but he was laying the general-science foundation for becoming an accomplished innovator.
“When you’re young, you really have the ability to produce creative blue-sky invention that can solve important problems,” said Millar, who occasionally teaches a course at the University of Technology Sydney’s Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation degree, a highly competitive program open only to top-performing students. “Normally invention is kept as the preserve of experienced, older professionals–which makes sense in a way because they have the most experience and knowledge–but there is something to be said about including some more young and up-and-coming minds in that area.”
Since graduating university in 2011, Millar has forged his own path in innovation, obtaining 21 patents (7 of which have been granted so far) while also developing a strong reputation as a prototyping whiz on major projects.
“I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and problem solving is a part of life there,” said Millar, adding: “I’ve been working for Xinova in its previous incarnations for seven years and it’s really given me some great opportunities to work in pure innovation, which I would not have been able to do any other way. I have really appreciated the flexibility, especially bouncing across such a wide range of subjects and industries and roles. I have worked in different roles, worn a lot of hats, and it’s been mostly great.”
His interest in pure innovation was kindled at a university talk given by a senior aerospace engineer, who fascinated Millar with stories about blue sky inventing. It was exactly what he wanted to do, despite warnings of the long slog typically required to get from the bottom of the engineering pile to the peak of invention.
But a chance encounter with Xinova innovator and founder of Keon Research, Mike Manion, put Millar on the fast track to full-time inventing. In the absence of actual invention degrees, inventors must often find their own way through uncharted territory. Seasoned inventors can be as pivotal to the career journey as trusted guides can be to epic ski vacations in Afghanistan.
“Running into Mike Manion skipped a whole lot of that grinding away in the bottom of an industry, and I could get right into using all my creativity for inventing,” said Millar, who worked in Dr. Manion’s lab from 2012 – 2016. “Inventing really helps you broaden your horizons and allows you to focus on all sorts of stuff.”
Broad horizons, indeed. Just a sample of projects on which he’s co-invented with Dr. Manion and others include:
The key to success, he found, was to embrace the expansive viewpoint of a generalist. The generalist’s perspective is like X-ray goggles for seeing new solutions to old problems. Industry problems, Millar says, often remain unsolved because the approach to solutions is too narrow.
“Generalists like myself build up a solid base of knowledge of physical properties and techniques used across multiple industries and sciences and, when given a problem to solve, you give yourself a quick crash course in that problem’s field. While learning about it, you look for places you can implement the principles and techniques and designs you know from other fields in any way you can, in any combination. There’s always something that can be done.”
Millar hopes more outlets for pure innovation emerge, especially for young creative scientists. Young innovators typically follow the entrepreneurship path, putting total focus on developing a single piece of technology—sometimes one that they are unequipped to create in a niche startup space. In addition to an outlandish fail rate, entrepreneurship puts focus on growing fundraising and business skills rather than broad technical problem-solving abilities.
“I don’t know if entrepreneurship is the best focus for all innovators,” he said. “It can be easy to lose sight of the original problem you set out to solve.”
There’s something to be said for pure innovation.
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