When Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students Madison Wyatt and Chris Lore set out to gauge market viability of small nuclear detectors, they thought there was a chance the devices could be sold to individuals.
They quickly concluded they were wrong and, like any good scientist or businessperson, they changed course.
“This would maybe be something everyone would want,” said Wyatt, now pursing a master’s degree at RPI, explaining their initial thinking.
But the team “pivoted” after they talked to potential homeowner clients. It turns out the people they spoke to didn’t want the comfort of having a device that could tell them when nuclear radiation was near them — after all, “what does that say about your next 10 minutes?” Lore said.
“We feel the individual is really not that concerned about a nuclear attack,” said Lore, who studies geology. “People don’t want to spend their time and money on something they don’t want to ever use.”
Focusing on the individual market had a fundamental flaw, they said. It would be hard to sell individuals a device that carried with it strong connotations of fear — a frame they found hard to break down at that level.
“You are marketing fear, and you don’t want to do that all the time,” Wyatt said.
But if they instead targeted audiences that would be receptive to a safety and prevention message, the team could find a more accepting market. The team spoke to a business that oversees dozens of sports stadiums and arenas across the country, garnering at least an indication of interest. The detectors could be positioned at entrances and other high-traffic areas as a safety precaution to deter potential attacks.
The detectors developed at RPI under Professor Yaron Danon, director of the school’s nuclear engineering program, are smaller and cheaper than older models, improving portability and lessening high-energy needs. Danon said the detectors can be tailored to different sizes and purposes but will be primarily used by first responders, the nuclear industry and for some medical uses and research. They can detect nuclear material within a certain radius and identify the specific type of radiation.
Wyatt worked in Danon’s lab as a student, and she and Lore used devices in a business exercise from at a school that prides itself on its science and engineering bona fides. Wyatt and Lore questioned the viability of selling small nuclear to detectors to homeowners or stadium owners as part of the college’s Change the World Challenge, which asks students to develop entrepreneurial ideas using innovative technologies.
Wyatt and Lore and their small nuclear detectors was one of five teams that earned the $1,000 prize in the fall; they were joined by the other teams that pitched a robotic household painter, a high-tech desk for meetings and a platform that would facilitate small-scale renewable energy sales.
As part of the same business program last year, Lore and Wyatt worked on an app for refrigerators. They imagined an application that would track your refrigerator stock and offer recipes based on ingredients actually on hand.
“Wouldn’t it be great if you could put in all the food in your fridge and it would give you cool recipes?” Wyatt said of their idea last year — before they realized they were too late to the fridge-recipe app game. “It turns out there are hundreds of them.”
But for the buddings scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs at RPI, a false start is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and refine an idea, always testing, tweaking and retesting.
“Is this plausible? How would we do this? It’s another thing to figure out,” Lore said, comparing the entrepreneurial process of refining and idea and seeking out a viable market to the scientific process that drives his other academic work.
“You go as far as you can and if the idea doesn’t work, pivot and try again,” he said. “You make a hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, you gather results and you conclude with those results.”
“And it’s OK if it doesn’t work,” Wyatt said.