IV launched the Deep Science Fund in 2015 to investigate applications for ambitious technologies within ISF’s patent portfolio. Given a longer time horizon to pursue ideas, the team is able to operate with greater patience and risk tolerance, says Brian, who earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, with a minor in materials science, from Stanford. But the extra latitude also means they’re constantly weighing investment now against worthwhile economic return later—in some cases, potentially much later.
Navigating that creative tension between theoretical and applied science, a dream and a dead end, is at the core of the Deep Science mission. Their charter, says Brian, is to identify key opportunities in the portfolio and then determine the critical questions that need to be answered before deciding to advance or abandon a project. In making these calculations, they rigorously test and de-risk the science; fine-tune the business analysis and market potential; and then repeat and reassess until they get the finest resolution for the best-possible decision. “We keep circling through these iterative processes,” says Brian, “trying to get to the point where something is possible, practical, feasible and profitable. You can’t just go, ‘Well, I’ve got this IP and what should I do with it?’ You’ve got to get to the point of asking the right scientific or business questions, and then vetting them. That’s our job.”
Brian works with a small team in IV’s Bellevue office, and they contract with an extensive network of consultants and subject experts—people who know the science at an “excruciating level,” he says. “Finding the right people who can give us the answers that we need, understanding where we are trying to go next, that’s our skill set.”
Skin in the Game
While some projects in the Deep Science pipeline are still early in the exploratory phase, others are closer to fruition, says Brian, including one—involving a dynamic skin technology—that has the team particularly excited.
The patent behind this technology concerns perturbing the flow of a fluid, such as air passing over a plane’s wing, at precisely the right point and frequency in order to reduce drag. This invention would have clear applications for aircraft, but also anything else that has air or liquid flowing over or through it, especially at greater speeds or volumes. “There are a variety of potential industries,” says Brian, including high-speed rail, long-distance trucking, pipeline flow, possibly even ships.
As the Deep Science team started digging into the dynamic skin idea, they found some work in peer-reviewed literature that supported the concept, but not yet at commercially viable speeds. They estimated maybe a 5-percent reduction in drag at higher velocities, which didn’t immediately wow them. Then they connected with consultants who specialize in commercial aircraft, and they pointed out that those new winglets—the vertical protrusions you often see on the ends of wings—can yield a 3 to 6 percent reduction in drag and have saved billions of gallons of fuel. Five percent suddenly sounded a whole lot more compelling.
“Okay, now we’re excited,” says Brian. “There’s good impact to be had here, if the assumption is true.”
That “if,” of course, is whether they can prove the same drag reduction at commercial flow speeds. To answer that essential question—after they learned a computer model could take years to generate the results they need—they partnered with the University of Melbourne in Australia to use their wind tunnel. So right now, the Deep Science team is working with the Machine Shop at IV Lab to do some preliminary designs of this dynamic skin, and they plan to set up field trials sometime in fall or early winter 2019, with the goal of getting some results perhaps by the end of the year.
The team is anxious to see how these trials go. Yet with any moonshot, says Brian, they need to stay cool-headed and rational. “We are all realistic, and we know the resolution we need to see. What we’re looking for is enough of an impact—economic and environmental impact—to move forward.”