Pavan and Kavya knew that Prof. Murugan was making them follow a structured innovation methodology. But they did not know about Design Thinking before. When Prof. Murugan explained to them about the process and introduced the company IDEO, they both got very excited. In a few months, they were supposed to join the corporate world and the knowledge of Design Thinking must help them. Prof. Murugan realised both Pavan and Kavya might get carried away with this newly learnt concept and may deviate from the main project work. So, he reminded them to get back to work and complete the process.

“You have just come up with some ideas. Decide your hypothesis to test and immediately plan for the experiments”, he said.

They started working together trying to figure out which of the ideas are most critical. They pointed out a couple of hypotheses which are extremely critical to prove out for the implementation of the solution and are not very difficult to try out as well.

Kavya immediately started designing a prototype suitable to run the experiment. She was looking for a barcode scanning machine to design the prototype. Pavan tried to get one for her but it was difficult to find one in the college. In the next review with Prof. Murugan, they both highlighted the point - without the barcode scanner they are not able to complete the prototype that will resemble how the solution should look like.

Prof. Murugan asked them whether they had planned their experiment in detail. Pavan was a bit confused. They identified the hypothesis to test – wasn’t it good enough for the experiment? Prof. Murugan confirmed it was not. As the innovation team, they should plan out the experiment well defining its objective among other things. He said a defined experiment objective would have indicated how important was it for Kavya to get a working barcode scanner. He also advised them to use lean prototyping method to conduct the experiments. Lean prototyping is about getting an assumption verified with least resources spent. [1]

Before planning an experiment with lean prototyping, the innovation team should consider the following factors:

a) For whom is this experiment - most often the hypothesis that the innovation team is trying to prove out is focused on one particular segment of the user base. Defining this helps the team to plan out specific details of the experiment to help focus all efforts on that particular segment.

b) The easiest way to conduct the experiment - this is a rough sketch of how to conduct the experiment and how to make sure the target group makes an active participation in the experiment.

c) The parameters to note - an experiment gets conducted to prove or disprove a certain hypothesis. The parameters that help in doing that has to be defined while designing the experiment.

d) The go/ no go conditions - what value (both subjective and objective) of the parameters should be considered as acceptable to evaluate the hypothesis must be defined while designing the experiment.

e) A prototype is not a Minimum Viable Product - a minimum viable product is a saleable product without having all the final features of the intended product. A prototype is designed only to confirm one or more than one hypothesis.

Prof. Murugan told Pavan and Kavya that they should be define the true intention of their prototype. The hypothesis that they were working on required a confirmation from the user only from the aesthetic point of view - so they need not fit a real barcode scanner but rather use a dummy which might just look like a scanner. If they were experimenting to identify whether a barcode scanner actually scans properly, only then they should use a real scanner - those are technical prototypes. A technical prototype demonstrates the functionality of a product while an aesthetic one provides just the resemblance of an actual one.

Pavan and Kavya holding a hand-held bar code scanner
Pavan and Kavya holding a hand-held bar code scanner
Motor Vikatan's workshop on Innovation & Design Thinking for Mobility Engineers

Bharath coaches Pavan to think like Elon Musk

Looking at the challenges he faced when innovating for ideas as a student, Pavan wondered on several occasions on how the industry did it. During a discussion with Bharath, he brought up the question of how Elon Musk is able to come up with so many innovative ideas – Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity – and successfully commercialize them.

Bharath thought that this is the right moment to introduce Musk’s most powerful technique “First Principles Thinking” to Pavan. He felt that Pavan could apply this technique in their project and get some practice. Bharat played the video of Elon Musk’s TED talk. Musk uses first principles thinking to examine the underlying constraints behind a problem and arrive at innovative solutions. In his 2013 TED talk [2], Musk described first principles thinking and how he uses it to define problems and create innovative solutions.

Elon Musk delivering his TED Talk “The Mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City…” (2013).
Elon Musk delivering his TED Talk “The Mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City…” (2013).

Well, I do think there's a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are -- what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn't be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It's really counterintuitive. So I think that's an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it's incredibly helpful.” [2].

Musk explained first principles thinking with an example of the cost of EV batteries [7]. We know that the battery is the most expensive component in an EV, accounting for 40 – 50% of the cost of an EV. To make EVs affordable, we need to innovate and reduce the cost of battery. How do we apply first principles thinking here:

Follow @ Google News: கூகுள் செய்திகள் பக்கத்தில் விகடன் இணையதளத்தை இங்கே கிளிக் செய்து ஃபாலோ செய்யுங்கள்... செய்திகளை உடனுக்குடன் பெறுங்கள்.

#1 Identify the Problem & recognize the underlying assumptions

“People would say, ‘Historically it’s cost $600 per kilowatt-hour, and so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’ And you say, ‘No, what are the batteries made of?’

#2 Break the problem down to fundamental facts

Next you ask, ‘Okay, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents?’” he said. The materials include cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange, what would each of those things cost?” Musk explained. Through this approach, the cost would drop to around $80 per kilowatt-hour, which is much less than the original cost of $600.

# 3 Use fundamental truths to create a new path

According to Popomaronis, fundamental truths are like building blocks. Once you've gathered them, you can use these building blocks to create a completely new, innovative solution.

“You just have to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes,” he added [3] [4] [5].

Figure 3 – Cost Structure of Lithium ion Battery (2016 data) – Nadim Muluf, Qnovo

Figure 4 - Cost modeling of lithium-ion battery cells for automotive applications - Gae¨tan Patry, Alex Romagny, Se´bastien Martinet & Daniel Froelich, Energy Science & Engineering

LIB Typical Cost Structure
LIB Typical Cost Structure
LIB Cost for different electrodes
LIB Cost for different electrodes

The first principles thinking principle was used by SpaceX to drastically bring down the costs of launching a rocket. Between 1970 and 2000, space shuttles, when in operation, could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $54,500 per kilogram. Meanwhile, SpaceX Falcon 9, the rocket used to access the ISS, did it for just $2,720 per kilogram.

The first principles thinking follows a structured process:

· ask lots of questions,

· gather as much evidence as possible,

· develop axioms based on the evidence,

· draw a conclusion,

· attempt to disprove the conclusion,

· seeks help from others to invalidate the conclusion,

· and if nobody can invalidate it, it’s probably right.

"I think it's important to view knowledge as sort of semantic tree," Musk wrote in a 2015 Reddit AMA. "Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to" [3][6].

In addition, during a 2014 commencement speech at USC [7], Musk explained: "Don't just follow the trend. It's good to think in terms of the physics approach — the first principles," he said. "This is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense, or if it's just what everybody else is doing."

He added: "It's very hard to do. You can't think that way about everything. It takes a lot of effort, but if you're trying to do something new, it's the best way to think. It's really a powerful, powerful way of thinking." [7]

Popomaronis says, “First principles thinking isn’t just for solving technical problems, it can be used to fix problems in your daily life too. In a rapidly changing world, historical truths and experience may not always work, which is why it’s sometimes necessary to take a step back and use the first principles approach to create a more customized and creative solution [2]”.

Pavan and Kavya liked the First Principles thinking approach very much. They felt very energized and confident about using this technique to precisely define technical problems and create innovative solutions. They wondered why such a powerful technique is not taught in our schools and colleges.

Prof Murugan explain ISRO’s Frugal Innovation approach

Professor Murugan recounted how the Indian Space Research Organization has adopted a frugal approach to Innovation. ISRO has demonstrated its cost-effective space launch programs, also referred to as Frugal Engineering. For example, ISRO’s Mars mission or Mangalyaan costed the organization a mere $75 million, while other developed countries like the U.S. spent billions for their programs. What was unique in ISRO’s approach? - Dr. K. Radhakrishna, the then Chairman of ISRO, explained in an interview to Forbes magazine about ISRO’s unique approach.[8] He said while Russia looks for robustness and the U.S. for optimization in their space programs, ISRO has a cost focus, on the budget. Time consuming and expensive ground tests were kept to the minimum but effective, to get the maximum benefits from them. ISRO is extremely schedule-driven to avoid cost overruns. The scientists sometimes spend 20 hours a day on the program.

For innovation, ISRO uses crowdsourcing through its geo-portal called Bhuvan for visualization services, to share earth observation data in public domain and for remote sensing applications. The crowdsourcing approach is used to collect points-of-interest and host government data such as forest departments, according to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. India’s Department of Science and Technology opened up access to geospatial data and services including maps. The earlier regulations needed individuals or organizations to apply for approval before working on such topics. In the automotive context, this opening up of access to information opens the door for new applications such as the optimal route planning for vehicles and autonomous navigation. Several concepts popularized by organizations like ISRO can be applied in the automotive industry. Tractors and farm implements can use satellite data on weather, solid nutrients mapping etc to enable precision in agricultural practices.

ISRO realized that to scale up its efforts in innovation, just its internal initiatives will not be sufficient. In order to address the issue, Antrix was launched in 1992 as a private limited company for commercial exploitation of the technology developed by ISRO, as a marketing arm for promotion. ISRO today offers satellite launch as a commercial service for other countries using its tried and tested launch vehicles. Bharath also seconded Murugan’s opinion – he envied ISRO for its innovation and frugality. He wanted to visit Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota, about 100 kilometres from Chennai. To make it a one day activity of fun, he thought he could arrange a trip along with Prof. Murugan, Pavan and Kavya. He made a note to call them and check their availability.

Note: All opinions and points-of-view expressed above are those of the authors and do not represent that of any other individual or organization.


1 - Lean prototypes: all different and yet the same, May 5, 2017, UX Alpaca

2 – The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, 2013, YouTube

3 - Elon Musk calls this a ‘powerful, powerful way of thinking’—but is ‘hard to do.’ Here’s how it works, Tom Popumaronis, Feb 29, 2020

4 – How to think like Elon Musk, Reetu Ravi, January 12, 2021, JumpStart magazine

5 – Use these 3 steps to think like Elon Musk, Matt Pressman, May 24, 2021

6 - I am Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of a rocket company, AMA!, reddit

7 - Elon Musk USC Commencement Speech, 2014, YouTube

8 - How India Launched Its Mars Mission At Cut-Rate Costs, Saritha Rai, Nov 7, 2013, Forbes

Connect with Authors on LinkedIn:

Dr Shankar Venugopal | Ramachandran S | Sayantan Mukherjee

தெளிவான புரிதல்கள் | விரிவான அலசல்கள் | சுவாரஸ்யமான படைப்புகள்Support Our Journalism
அடுத்த கட்டுரைக்கு