CSU, Fort Collins energy innovation showcased at Smithsonian

Representatives from CSU and the City of Fort Collins attended a pre-opening event at the Places of Invention exhibit at the Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History (left to right): Robert Haw, Diane Jones, Graeme Troxell, Ed Van Dyne, Gesine Cherian, Jean Troxell, Sunil Cherian, Wade Troxell, Tom Milligan, Judy Dorsey, Dan Epstein, Julie Zinn, Bryan Willson, Darin Atteberry. Photo courtesy Smithsonian.

What does Fort Collins have in common with Hartford, Conn.; Minnesota’s Medical Alley; Hollywood; The Bronx, and Silicon Valley?

They have all been designated Places of Invention by the Smithsonian Institution. The six are featured in an exhibition of the same name that opened to the public on July 1 in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Fort Collins and the other communities show what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, available resources and inspiring surroundings come together and spark invention and innovation. The exhibit is designed to allow visitors to discover, explore and discuss the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed — all in the pursuit of something new.

“Innovation drives the economy, and Fort Collins and CSU are at the center of this innovation,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose Second Congressional District includes Fort Collins. “It’s a tremendous recognition for our community to be spotlighted by the Smithsonian where visitors to the Places of Invention exhibit at the Lemeslon Center will see our area as a true hub of invention.”

His sentiments were shared by others in the Congressional delegation and local leaders.

“A key to our future is creating and innovating to find solutions, especially in challenging areas like energy. Fort Collins and CSU have stood out from the crowd, and their recognition by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center is a well-deserved honor,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.

“This exhibit really showcases the ongoing collaboration between CSU and the city,” said Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell, who is also a professor of engineering at Colorado State. “It’s exactly what a land grant university ought to be doing in the 21st century — breaking down the ivory tower to help people with what they need in their daily lives.”

Time and space

The exhibit spans time as well as geography. Hartford, for example, is shown as it was in the late 1800s, when it became an important center for commerce and insurance; Hollywood in the “Golden Age” of the 1930s, and The Bronx at the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s.

Fort Collins represents clean energy development in the 21st century. By tackling environmental problems and creating clean, sustainable alternatives to existing energy sources, Colorado State University, the city and Northern Colorado business community are actively pursuing collaborations that result in local innovations with global impact. That makes Fort Collins the newest Place of Invention.

“We really wanted to include a contemporary place — a place that was still blooming and blossoming — where the end of the story isn’t known,” explained exhibit curator Joyce Bedi, senior historian at the Lemelson, where they have been studying the idea of invention for two decades. “We wanted to see if these ideas we had about common characteristics and how places of invention developed in historical examples applied to a current place of invention.”

While Bedi points out that there’s not a standard “recipe” for creating a place of invention, there are some characteristics common to the half-dozen communities selected: a spirit of collaboration and communication, flexibility and adaptability, willingness to take risks, and a culture that appreciates creativity in all its forms. In Fort Collins, that can be anything from a new way of thinking about powering vehicles or hiring artists to decorate public pianos on the street.

Strong CSU ties

Colorado State University plays a large role in the city’s innovation culture. The six people whose work is highlighted in the exhibit all have strong ties to CSU:

  • Bryan Willson is the founder of the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab at CSU, professor of mechanical engineering, and a director of the CSU Energy Institute. He also serves the U.S. Department of Energy as program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
  • Amy Prieto, CSU professor of chemistry, is the creator of a new 3D battery architecture, based on patented copper foam, that is set to revolutionize electric vehicle power with an environmentally friendly manufacturing process.
  • Sunil Cherian, founder and CEO of Spirae Inc. earned both his master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from CSU, where he taught and worked with both the Colorado Manufacturing Extension Center and the Mid America Manufacturing Center before going into the private sector. Spirae created smart-grid technology that is helping the City of Fort Collins develop the net-zero-energy zone known as Fort ZED; Cheiran serves on the boards of both the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster and the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association.
  • Ed VanDyne, creator of the VanDyne SuperTurbo, which combines a turbocharger and a transmission that works off waste heat recovery, began testing his breakthrough engine technology in the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab in 2008.
  • Judy Dorsey, founder, president and principal engineer of The Brendle Group, is an alumna of CSU and serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the College of Engineering. She has led the completion of sustainability projects across 20 states including energy plans for some of the nation’s most progressive communities and major cities, and helped found the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, spearheading two of its initiatives: the International Clean Tech Network and Fort ZED.
  • Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing, studied social work at CSU. Her commitment to building healthy communities and environmental stewardship led her to transition New Belgium’s Fort Collins brewery to wind power and implement Colorado’s largest private solar array. She is also a member of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Renewable Energy Board, and a major supporter of CSU’s fermentation science degree.

Bedi said that New Belgium also symbolized another important ingredient in the culture of innovation: informal gathering spaces.

“In the exhibition we have a section devoted to gathering spots,” she explained. “It’s important to keep in mind that invention typically doesn’t happen on a 9-to-5 schedule. Having a spot away from the workplace to unwind with friends and colleagues fosters unfettered conversations that can lead to new ideas and new approaches for whatever task is at hand.”

That’s why there are now two New Belgium tasting room stools in the Smithsonian, where visitors can sit and read about how such gathering spots contribute to Places of Invention.

Places of Invention is an ongoing exhibition at the Lemelson Center, and will be open to the public through at least 2020. A documentary film created by CSU videographer Joe Vasos for Rocky Mountain PBS in conjunction with the exhibit will be screened at the University Center for the Arts on Sept. 17 and aired at a later date.

For more information or to purchase the companion book, Places of Invention, go to the exhibit website.