When the three generations of Dunfields get together for the holidays, the dinner table conversation naturally steers clear of politics and veers towards the topics that have united them for five generations: science, technology and innovation. The Dunfield family values innovation as a special bond, which was strengthened with the addition of a new topic: inventing for Xinova. Last year John Dunfield, Ph.D., his son, Steve, and Steve’s daughter, Dr. Beth Dunfield, successfully submitted solutions to separate Xinova innovation opportunities.
“It is a great pleasure to be associated with the accomplishments of my son Steve, and granddaughter Beth, for Xinova,” said John C Dunfield, who attended and taught at McGill University in the 1960s and graduated in electrical engineering, as did his grandfather before him in 1904. “I’m convinced we are continuing as a family with the tradition of applied innovation. My grandfather John W. excelled as Chief Engineer of a large power generating company. Then my father, George, was President of a large electrical manufacturing firm and also frequently mentored engineers in innovation.”
The call to innovation seemingly resonates within their family DNA. Over the generations, the Dunfields have collectively accrued dozens of patents, published dozens of peer-reviewed papers, and founded numerous companies.”
They each grew up working out technical problems for family businesses. A certain line of logic has been hardwired into them over five generations of innovation: What’s the real problem? What’s the context? What’s the need? Why do this? How do we help? What do we really know is possible and not possible? Who needs to be involved? But creativity and actively engaging with nature are equally embraced. Their get-togethers may feature solving a thousand-piece puzzle, or experimenting with microscopes and chemistry sets and building model rockets, or hunting for dinosaur bones and Arizona rocks while on a long hike.
But eventually, the focus comes back to innovation.
“We’re always thinking about how to improve things,” said Steve Dunfield, who completed his accelerated Master’s degree in Engineering and Management at Santa Clara University in the late 80s while working full-time in semiconductor plasma etching. “We’ll do simple things like puzzles together, and then start talking about a problem… and get in this abstract reasoning, relaxed state. We get in that problem/solution space and we ask each other: How do we think creatively? How do we learn from one another? How do I see a different perspective that I’m not currently seeing? We build on each other quite well that way.”
The world is an integrated complex system, and the more reference points the better to understand it all. The Dunfields over the generations have nurtured the innovative spark in their children by exposing them to many technical fields while also emphasizing, for instance, the beauty of nature and art, and the joy of physical activity. John, a lifelong jogger, has logged enough miles running to circumnavigate the Earth. Steve, like everyone in the family, is an avid hiker and outdoorsman and has slowly but surely completed the Crater Lake marathon and the Mac Forest ultra. His daughter Beth is an artist, and played competitive soccer and ran college track, while his son is a photographer, writer and hiker who frequently bests his dad in soccer and basketball.
The aim wasn’t necessarily to churn out one generation of innovator after another. But to build a broad perspective. Good communication skills empower budding innovators to apply their technical tools to share and explore new ideas. Having a system like Xinova to practice innovation together helps keep those innovator muscles, and those family bonds, strong.
“What we have all grown up learning as a family is to get out into nature and look around at the world with curiosity and observe what is happening and why a problem exists and figure out a way to solve it,” said Steve, continuing: “For me, innovation is a system. Imaginative communication is a very important quality of that system. It’s all about the people you bring into the conversation and how you work together and apply checks and balances to follow new logic or to be aware of the lack of logic. With a family, there’s trust that you can communicate well and create a system for innovation.”
John Dunfield was earning money as a teenager climbing power poles in Alberta while deciding whether to go to college and follow in his father’s marketing or grandfather’s engineering footsteps. He liked science, but he also liked working and getting his hands dirty. One day he slipped down a pole. Hard. Dusting himself off, he realized that college was a better career path.
John began applied development, including inventing, shortly after leaving academia with his Ph.D. Departing snowy Montreal for the spring wildflower bloom in Arizona, he worked for the US Space Shuttle project developing early technologies including guidance control and satellite systems for Sperry Flight Systems, who filed for his first patents.
He now holds over 55 patents and has published over 30 peer-reviewed papers in various fields. Along the way, John developed semiconductor equipment based on the induction motor at Electroglas, developed patented products at Xerox PARC, and supported GP-B satellite development at Stanford while at Lockheed (Palo Alto Research Center). At Seagate Technology, he was thrice awarded a member of the Seagate Patent Hall of Fame for disk drive development and then continued development at Microvision for MEMS related scanners. With Brian Norling, he is a co-founder of Mems Precision Technology, and with Rick May he is a co-founder of NRHA, where he continues to actively solve problems with radiation hardening.
John has retired several times and “likes to keep involved in interesting projects to keep the cobwebs away.” One such involvement involved Xinova: he and his MEMS Precision Technology partner were confident that they could provide useful support on the Point of Use Water Purification RFI. He encouraged his son, Steve, to check out the MEMS-related innovation challenge. Intrigued, Steve Dunfield joined the innovator network. He shared his expertise for his father’s submission, then went after another challenge seeking drug delivery via inkjet printing solutions.
The challenge was fascinating. Transdermal drug delivery was a technology Steve had looked at with Jim Ayres, Emeritus professor of pharmacology at Oregon University, and he understood applications of inkjet technologies to drug delivery from his 17 years at Hewlett Packard. For his solution submission, he pulled in his daughter, Beth, a doctor in veterinary medicine, to help fill in his biomedical and veterinary medicine expertise gaps.
Fast forward a few months. John and his partner Brian’s submission on a water particulate MEMS system solution was accepted. Steve and Beth submitted their solution for transdermal drug delivery via inkjet printing technology for companion animals. It was accepted as well. The good news turned out to be even better when, over the phone, the Dunfields realized they’d each successfully invented for Xinova, albeit unintentionally as a family.
The Xinova solution submissions were far from the Dunfield family’s first technical collaboration. John speaks like the proud father he is of how often he discusses technical problems with Steve for John’s company; one MEMS application for a chemical sensor issue particularly stands out.
Steve worked at the cutting edge of semiconductor processing in Silicon Valley, where he obtained his first patent at Applied Materials. Many more patents followed after moving to Oregon in 1991, where he worked for 17 years at HP (e.g. developing integrated circuits and thermal inkjet technology) before entering the biotech startup scene. Steve, in turn, praises the inventive and entrepreneurial talent that his daughter and his son Brian, the family computer scientist, brings to the new family business: berrihealth, which Steve co-founded in 2009 to produce anti-oxidant rich black raspberries for university cancer research.
The whole family, in fact, helps advance technology for berrihealth. John Dunfield says it’s a personally powerful endeavor.
“I enjoy being part of the Berri-Products, with Steve and Brian Dunfield, along with the Sturms family, getting the word out about the health benefits of the berrihealth grown and produced Black Raspberry Food (BRF) products,” said John, who lives in California with his wife. “One of my motivations to move this forward was based upon my sister Dawne, who passed away from esophageal cancer. I feel the clinical evidence suggests it would have been beneficial if Dawne had the product available to her at the time; others could be helped by BRF.”
It was obvious to John early on that his son had the innovator’s spark. Growing up in Silicon Valley at the dawn of its golden age, Steve and his brother and sister had access to plenty of amazing things to play with, including an Altair computer in the garage and a whole city full of cutting edge labs. John remembers when his son as a young boy stepped up to the lab bench and, with great interest, peered through a microscope at a partner semiconductor company’s prototype.
“Boy, you could see Steve light up. All the lights turned on and you could see that he didn’t need much reinforcement to bring on the fact that he was going to be a not just a scientist, but to get involved and go develop some things rather than just talk about them or study them.”
Indeed, Steve and his siblings didn’t just stop at playing with the gyroscopes and science kits they received for Christmas presents. They pushed things. Sometimes, into perhaps slightly dangerous territory.
“Of course the unauthorized fire arrow development and tennis ball cannon projects, to name a few, were great explorations that were a bit risky, making them all the more fun,” said Steve.
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