Idea Filters

Idea Filters for Clean Energy Technology

An “idea filter” is a network or process that is used to sift through a large number of raw ideas and evaluate their merits to the point where they are discarded, recycled, or turned into useful products or systems. When society’s broad innovation network is viewed in this manner, it can be viewed visually as in Figure 1 below.   Unfortunately, the output from today’s innovation system (lower part of Fig. 1) is unoptimized and underutilized. Using patents as a proxy for innovation, demographic data of U.S. patent holders shows that today’s innovators are predominantly male (88%), white (92%) older (average age of 47), and highly educated (46% with a Ph.D.).[1],[2] The corollary to this statement is that large numbers of students and citizen scientists, some of the most creative members in society, are often left on the sidelines of our innovation system.  If educators, government, and industry could work to extend society’s idea filter to include these segments of society, it would accelerate the generation of innovative new ideas that are badly needed in medicine, energy technology, agriculture, electronics, and more.

society_Idea_filter schematic


Figure 1.   Illustration of society’s innovation network as an idea filter that is used to “harvest” and evaluate new ideas, a small percentage of which ultimately become commercial technology. Currently, students and citizen scientists play a limited role in society’s innovation network.



Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award and a “Start Small! Minigrant” through the Office of the Provost at Columbia University, the Esposito research group seeks to (i.) expand participation by students and citizen scientists as both “idea generators” and “evaluators” in society’s innovation network and to (ii.) provide opportunities and resources that help accelerate development of the critical and creative thinking skills needed by tomorrow’s inventors and evaluators.  Our specific interests naturally relate to innovation of novel and emerging solar and electrochemical energy conversion technologies. In addition to research in the lab, this will be achieved through creation of online “mini filter” networks that are focused on harvesting and evaluating sustainable energy ideas.  The first idea filters have been tested through assignments and a final project in the PI’s elective course at Columbia, CHENE4231 Solar Fuels, and involves three stages as shown in the schematic of a “mini-filter” in Figure 2:


Figure 2.  Mini-idea filter network for implementation in the classroom.

Assignment sheets for each of the three stages can be found on the Teaching Page, and include directions for “Stage I: Idea harvesting“,  “Stage II: Down selection“, and “Stage III: Rigorous evaluation“. Additional documents (grading rubrics, project outcomes) will be made available when they are finalized.

Moving forward, the Esposito research group seeks to partner with student clubs, industry, other schools (K-12, college), and/or government agencies to create a freely available online crowdsourcing platform through which sustainable energy-centric idea filter activities and competitions will be hosted.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (CBET-1752340). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation


[1] Nager, A.; Hart, D.; Ezell, S.; Atkinson, R. D., “THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF INNOVATION
IN THE UNITED STATES”, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, Feb. 2016, Freely available for download here.

[2] Walsh, J. P.; Sadao, N. “Who Invents?: Evidence from the Japan-U.S. inventor survey”. RIETI Discussion Paper Series. 09-E-034 2009. Freely available for download here.