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July 17, 2018 37 min

Keywords:  innovation; fuel efficiency innovation


Competing for Fuel Efficiency Innovation

There’s been an explosion of innovation competitions in recent years.  They highlight the fact that innovation can come from non-obvious sources.   These competitions bring together smart people – usually industry outsiders - to tackle a problem.   The annual Shell Eco-marathon Americas took place this year in Sonoma, California.  In today’s show I welcome three members of the Duke Electric Vehicles team from Duke University.  They share their experience of competing for fuel efficiency innovation.


The Shell Eco-marathon Americas draws teams of high school and college students from North, Central, and South America.  The challenge is to create the most fuel-efficient car. The Duke Electric Vehicles team took first place in three categories.  On the track, they won awards in hydrogen fuel cell and electric prototypes. Off track, they won in technical innovation. Shomik Verma, Gerry Chen, and Patrick Grady give a glimpse of the competition and their road to victory.


The Race is On

The team starts in August and works on the car throughout the school year.  Amid academic studies and other obligations, students devote evenings and weekends to making the car.  They spend the first semester designing. The second semester, they build and test the car. The Duke Electric Vehicle team built a small, oblong 50-pound car in which the driver has to lie flat.  The car gets an estimated 12,000 miles per gallon. The secret to their fuel efficiency innovation: a super capacitor in the hydrogen powertrain. Now that the team has tasted victory, they are not stopping.  This summer they are working on beating the Guinness World Record for the most fuel-efficient car.


Learning Innovation Hands-On

Students don’t often get to bridge the theoretical to the practical in school.  The competition offers the chance to put the classroom theory into practice.  At the competition, there was a unique level of cooperation among the teams – from borrowing tools to asking advice.  The focus on one problem, fuel efficiency, maximized the potential for innovative solutions. The team members sharpened essential skills of innovation - problem-solving, creativity and collaboration.  


Lessons Learned

  • Have determination and perseverance.
  • Shomik learned determination and to persevere through unexpected difficulties.  In his words, “It was really important for us to rely on team members and rely on the fact that we knew we did good work.”
  • Use a methodical, organized approach.
  • Gerry learned the importance of a methodical approach, being organized, and breaking things down into subcomponents.
  • Go back to basic theory for the solutions.
  • This was Patrick’s fourth year on the team and second as team president.  He learned many lessons through the years working on efficiency vehicles. One of the biggest was how to go back to basic theory.
  • Wishing the Duke Electric Vehicles team the best in breaking the Guinness World Record and beyond.

    Want to keep track of the Duke Electric Vehicles Team?  Visit the Duke Electric Vehicles  Facebook page.  Or check out their website:


    Five Minutes to New Ideas

    Could your business benefit from creating a standardized offering of a custom product?  Back in 1985, there was no such thing as a standard PC. You owned a specific brand and had access to programs written specifically for that make.  Each company was attempting to create lock-in for their third-party software developers. Working for a startup in Silicon Valley, my colleague and I faced a dilemma.  What PC should we tailor our typing instruction program to? We came up with a creative solution. Listen to Five Minutes to New Ideas.  Hear how going in the opposite direction of the crowd can pay off.



    We’re getting ready to head out on travel in the Mobile Studio.  We're looking for innovators in non-obvious industries and non-obvious locations.  Fin Gourmet Foods in Paducah, Kentucky kicked off this theme.  If you have a company or location doing really interesting innovation, drop me a note.  We’d love to see if we can come by with the Mobile Studio and do a broadcast.  Between now and the end of the year, we’ll be focusing east of the Mississippi.  After the first of the new year, we’ll be focusing west of the Mississippi.


  • If you have comments or suggestions, drop me a note.  
  • Read about my experiences in the innovation game at
  • Find out about my book, Beyond the Obvious, at  Get a copy through Amazon or wherever you get your books.
  • Pay it forward.  When I wanted to repay my mentor for his investment in my career, he told me to pay it forward.  Help me pay it forward. Give us a rating where you get your podcast. Help spread the word. Tell others about the show.  
  • Be part of the conversation between the shows.  I hang out at The Innovators Community on Slack.  This private community of vetted innovators helps each other succeed.

    The Killer Innovations podcast is produced by The Innovators Network.

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