Does every problem have a solution? Alumnus Patrick Sullivan (EngrPhys’78) thinks so, and he has dedicated his career to bringing together scientists and engineers from disparate fields to create technological solutions that disrupt our global community for the better.
He calls the approach Intellectual Anarchy™, and he’s spent more than 30 years refining and perfecting it as founder and CEO of Oceanit, a Honolulu-based “mind to market” engineering and technology company. In an environment where the only constraints on thinking are legal and moral boundaries, employees step outside their realms of expertise and let curiosity, intuition and humility be their guides.
“A lot of people are trained in a particular field, which has them looking at problems in their field just like everybody else. However, if we put them in a totally different field to look at a problem, you’ll have fresh eyes on an old problem,” Sullivan said. “In fact, it’s not anarchy at all, but it looks like it from the outside because it’s a nonclassical approach to innovation. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and be willing to go on a journey—asking questions, listening and discovering, more like an explorer than a traditional scientist.”
Looking at old problems with fresh eyes has enabled the Oceanit team to develop technologies ranging from nanomaterial-based, graffiti-resistant surface treatments to sensors that detect and “fingerprint” hostile fire for the military before troops even hear the gunshot. They’ve developed functional fabrics to produce electricity or dry soaked boots in a fraction of the time, as well as luminescent sprays that instantly detect the Ebola virus on materials.
Their innovations are preventing groundwater contamination in fracking operations through steel-cement hybrid nanomaterials and have saved an estimated 4,000 lives so far via hospital beds that can wirelessly monitor patients’ vital signs. They’re even tinkering with the idea of a prosthetic brain.
Sullivan likes to hire employees, particularly young PhD graduates, and thrust them into areas where they have no formal training. They soon understand that they can apply their training and basic principles to any challenge and that no idea is too outlandish.
Innovations come from ‘differences, not sameness.’
“That’s where we find the edges of science and technology,” Sullivan said. This transdisciplinary approach has drawn clients and partnerships with local and national government, manufacturing, energy, bioscience and defense and spurred spinoff companies. In 2016, Hawaii Business magazine named Sullivan its CEO of the Year.
Despite his savvy, Sullivan’s interest in business is rooted in pragmatism. One of five children, he paid his way through college with a summer landscaping and irrigation business and started Oceanit in 1985 with the same practical notion.
“I don’t think I set out thinking I was going to be an entrepreneur,” Sullivan said. “I enjoyed physics and engineering but needed to earn a living in Hawaii.”
Each year, Oceanit hosts an innovation summit, where employees are invited to bring forward interesting ideas on any topic they find curious. They share the concepts with peers across disciplines, who vote on their favorites.
“It’s a little bit unpredictable,” Sullivan said. “But what you can rely on is that from this exercise interesting conversations will happen. You just don’t know what they are, but they always lead to cool projects in the future.”
Embracing ambiguity has allowed Oceanit to pivot into new areas as politics, consumer trends or new discoveries dictate, said Ken Cheung, science and technology director and Oceanit employee for more than 21 years.
“We want to anticipate where the dust will settle, and we want to be at the forefront,” Cheung said.
So how does a company stay at the forefront when it’s at least three time zones from the nation’s financial and business centers?
“We sort of have a blank slate,” Cheung said. “If we were in Silicon Valley, for instance, or in Rochester, there’s sort of a groupthink that pervades the area, so we feel like we’re unfettered in the way we can approach problems.”
Patrick’s wife, Jan (Soc’79), is an attorney, chief operating officer of Oceanit and a Hawaii native. She says the island location helps draw team members who are as comfortable on the beach as in the boardroom. That’s important in a family-owned company that values community, where the hierarchy is loose and bonding sometimes happens over evening surfing sessions.
“People always ask us, ‘Why are you in Hawaii?’” she said. “But what makes it unique in Hawaii is there is a diversity there that you don’t find in a lot of the rest of the country, and there’s an emphasis on lifestyle, family and community, which sounds old-fashioned, but it’s actually very important to getting a healthy work environment. Also, we’ve learned that innovations come from ‘differences, not sameness.’ So, different people from different backgrounds and cultures creates an innovation-rich environment.”
Photos by Tina Cheng, Oceanit