If you can dream it, you can build it...

Innovation Love Story: David Orlebeke

A Power House of Energy!

A power house of energy, is how we’d like to describe David Orlebeke. His family calls him “Crazy Grandpa”!David’s focus on the problem while playing, simultaneously, with 100 different possible solutions to it can make you wonder where this level of clarity is coming from. But then, that’s what ace innovators are made of. Multiple patents, ongoing projects that are aimed to solve critical problems, collaborating with other across the globe, David is not AN innovator, he is several of them bundled into one. InvenTrust had a fantastic time talking to him and you’re in for a wonder story here.

The Story...

Let’s start by listening to your own story on innovation. Where were you born?

Chico, California

Where did you study and how did you get into innovation world?

College was both CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, California and Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. My father was an attorney, and we spent a lot of weekends discussing cases and investigations from the time I was about 12 years on till I left home for college. I was always questioning doctrine/accepted “facts” as a child – and so even at 8 years old, I read a lot – and because of parent, several years above my grade level as I could get into in-depth discussions with my parents as well as older sibling on most of the topics I was reading (history, religion, science fiction, etc.). I’d say my greatest “study” though was legal forensics – looking for what was hidden, skewed, why a statement was made the way it was by a particular party. This obviously was a result of my interaction with my father on his cases. I also did some undercover work during my later teens that focused on how I “looked” at situations and received a lot of “hands on instruction. So, what I learned was how to dissect statements, claims etc. – and then how to pose my theories etc.

How I got into innovation.. that’s a long and convoluted answer. I’ve always looked at how something works mechanically, not so much buried in the minutia of say an engine or some other device, but the general, overall actions and processes. The “why does it do what it does, and why was it made the way it was to achieve the result”. This mind set followed into my employment – I always look to exceed whatever the expected results of my employment position or duties are If you exceed the expectations of the client or employer, you will always have a shot at the next job or position when it comes up. Just the way I was raised. And, since I’m curious, once I “master” my position – I look for ways to not get bored – so focus on new ideas and concepts to meet that rule of “exceeding expectations” to ensure continued employment.

The more someone tells me I can’t do something, or something will not work the way I believe it can or have deduced from tests and trials – the more determined I get to prove I’m right. I also get frustrated when I can’t get the information I want/need from publications, books, or direct questions from a supposed “expert” – so I start looking far and wide to find it or if necessary, perform the tests and analysis myself. So, innovation was first part of what I felt were meeting the needs of my employer to resolve issues – financial, product reliability and scope of application, etc.

So, innovation in one form or another has been part of my life since my early teens. I’m curious, can get stubborn, and don’t accept “no” as answer without proof. I also do not think anything is impossible, just improbable due to current knowledge or investment in time, money and effort. I live by the axiom that “there is always another way to skin the cat” – and whenever possible, the simplest solution is the best one. Innovation allows me to “prove” that view.

What are your personal interests?

I read – a lot! When younger, I scuba dived; studied martial arts; and really liked building and testing devices and processes. Currently, my wife
and I live with our youngest son and his family and help take care of the 5-grandchildren (twins at 7-months, a 3yr old and two elementary (1 st and 2nd grade), plus take care of the yard and
other stuff while both parents work. So, I spend less time recently working on ideation challenges and accepting new consultancy work then I have in the past, mostly because I’m getting older and my “get up and go , has gotten up and left”. I still like working in the lab/shop – just don’t the time much anymore with family duties.

How do your friends and family describe you?

“Crazy Grandpa” is the primary family description – and admit I tend to embrace that image! Directly family – parents and siblings, and have to admit, some of my friends think I’m weird..they cannot understand how I come up with some of my processes and how I look things. I kid that I came from a small planet, able to leap tall twigs in a single bound and was dumped here to help you humans! Frankly, I agree with them that I’m a bit weird.

An interesting story from your innovation journey that you’d like to share

There are a couple of instances that come to my mind. Forgive the innovator in me for I will just list down the results from those incidents:

  • A. Reprogramming of filing/data software to provide more accurate financial information for work load assignment, case acceptance, and forecasting (law firm);
  • B. Testing of theory and prototype device for removal of chemical pollutants in water – revamping mechanisms/structure of the device and improving ability to perform such;
  • C. Testing organic enzyme(s) for applications in other industrial and agricultural applications.

All innovation has focused on resolving a problem – whether lack of adequate information (a) or improving a process (b & c) to achieve better results or overcome limitations.

What is the greatest threat to innovation in the world today?

IP and patent theft.

What is your thought on collaboration by innovators?

I like collaboration. I work on various innovation challenges and projects on at least a 50/50 basis with collaborators over just doing it myself. Collaboration allows for looking at a problem from many different
perspectives, which leads to better solution/resolution or increases the type of solutions that may be available to the client. I’d say that normally, when collaborating, we provide two or three different solutions
to the same problem which can be difficult or less likely, at least, when working as sole solution provider. The biggest issues are overcoming solver ego/personal investment in “their own” ideas and getting them to contribute to all the solutions to be provided.

Your opinion on disruption in innovation?

Investors and corporations are always looking for disruptive technologies, processes, etc. that limits the most viable and economically feasible solution to the problem. So, it’s really an issue of different desired
outcomes. Do you want a new technology or process to bring to market – or are you trying to solve a problem your company has with a process or failure to resolve client/customer issues or your own in-house problem? This can drastically change the type of solutions that you receive. Many posted challenges are not specific enough as to the desired outcome – they state a problem but don’t emphasize the desire for “disruptive” new technology being the primary desire. Additionally, “disruptive” is in the eye of the beholder – and really limits the type of solver you’re going to attract to provide the solution. It can be single
market focused to get a wide range of potential disruptive solutions. Lastly, most innovators are not going to provide a disruptive technology or process for the value that most challenge awards provide – especially
without any ownership (patent or license value) to the solution other than the monetary award itself.

We see/hear new ideas coming out every other day. Why don’t they succeed on a commercial level?

By past experience – it is the problem of a solution looking for a problem. The issue is one of marketing – creating the need or desire in the customer or potential customer/clients. So much of the marketing is focused on the immediate problem – not the long-term issue being addressed and the potential for the new idea to head-off other future issues – thus of greater long-term benefit than the one that is immediately seen/known. Example – my patented process can remove many more contaminants/pollutants in a given water or wastewater than what the client needs removed today. Many times, I hear “but the law/regulation does not require us to remove “that” pollutant”. My response is true – but look at the history of the litigation, regulation outside interests (advocates) and see what is
“coming down the road”. My process/solution addresses future issues – you will have already removed/addressed them and no further equipment, process
additions, etc. need to be added. This limits not only litigative exposure – but also shows/demonstrates the commitment to the client/customer of being proactive and being better than the competition.

Water tech industry is in need for higher innovation & collaboration. What is your opinion in this regard?

I agree on both points. The problem as I see it, is two fold – personal investment on the part of the innovator; and overcoming the existing industry’s reliance on established processes and techniques. Example – the vast majority of industrial and municipal water treatment is based on processes and science that has been around for a thousand years (aerobic and anaerobic microbial processes). Innovation has been primarily “tweaking” the wheel – instead of focusing on processes that don’t rely on the “wheel” at all. current curriculum in colleges and universities need immediate attention to focus on today’s environment. Today, there is a scarcity of recalcitrant and highly complex chemical pollutants we face from residual pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. Additionally, so much of research in University is corporation client based – so the research could have a foundational bias from the start – this leads to the loss and/or subjugation of new and novel approaches, techniques, technologies as the “desired” outcome was already known from the beginning and the research is aimed at proving it.

The other area is related to the innovator. Everyone wants to “matter” and be recognized for their knowledge, experience, etc. Experience often obstructs an openness to learning. Not all are this way – but the vast majority are. They “fear” not being relevant or of their “value” being diminished. It’s the major problem with collaboration. Many times in a collaborative arrangement, I wind up being the “Team Administrator/Arbitrator”. Not because I demand it, but I have a knack for it. I also try and keep things light, funny, and use self-deprecation to keep things on an even keel. Collaborators have to be more open to receiving, which isn’t an easy task at all.

Is the industry facing any threat?

The “established water industry” relies on chemical treatments and microbiologic process and that is a threat – but it’s not widespread yet. Large, centralized brick and mortar processes are under threat – especially in the rising industrial countries. There are numerous issues for why – from lack of process/treatment ability for the newer chemical pollutants; to decreased revenues for large treatment plants creation/renovation and lack of sufficient infrastructure required to feed said plant; to rapid changes in local populations and industry (growth and decline or fundamental change to existing local industry base) requiring more decentralized systems; to climate and regional changes – conflict, environmental, etc.

Where is Innovation heading in the future?

Decentralization and operational simplicity (low or average educated operators) coupled with a wider range of pollutant type treatment/reductions with reduction in required chemical additive(s) to achieve results. Wider range of process/technology utilization in varied climates and water/wastewater characteristics.

How would you describe an ideal environment for innovation?

There are several things that come to my mind:

  • A fabrication and testing lab where innovators can test both new processes and existing technology against real world problems and issues, both inside and outside their established industry areas of application.
  • Have an ability to work with people(s) with wide variety of experience and interests to resolve a problem – with a wide variety of differing problems being addressed at any one time. So – a true R&D where multiple solutions can be run at the same time and measured against each other to come up with the “better and best” solution.
  • This is a fundamental change in how “teams” are formed i.e. experience and knowledge, as well as removing the “market driven” focus on a specific problem and allowing for new ideas, processes and technologies to be invented/discovered without limitation to a specific industry or application.
  • Last, built in outside recognition to the inventors with some limited residual/financial incentive for discovery. You have to feed the ego of the R&D teams outside of simple in-house memos, announcements, etc.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue working with small to medium sized companies to create rapid placement/plug and play water and wastewater treatment processes that can be operated at high school or below educational levels – while reducing the complexity of the treatment process. Additionally, I also want to continue my collaboration with other professionals and semi-professional on problems/challenges outside my area of daily economic activity.