Mark Naufel launched Luminosity with moonshot ideas in mind. Now, interdisciplinary teams of students with bright ideas are designing, building and deploying innovations that positively impact society.
Since I was a little kid, I’ve always had a great desire of building things. I was fortunate enough to have a dad who was an engineer at Motorola. And because of this, I was given a personal computer at a very young age. I fell in love with the computer as a tool, and it’s what field my early desires to one day go and work in Silicon Valley.
So if someone had told me years ago that I’d up working at a university, I would have laughed. But here I am today and there’s no place I’d rather be. Prior to taking the job here at ASU, I was already working at a big tech firm out in California. I was supposed to be living my childhood dream, but it really wasn’t everything I thought it would be. And so for me personally, what I was looking for all along happened to be right where I had started, here at ASU.
It was at ASU where I was given this unique opportunity to build an interdisciplinary team of our finest students. Drawing from business, engineering, the arts the sciences, and bringing these students together in the pursuit of huge moonshot ideas. We call this initiative the Luminosity Lab. We dream big, we take risks, and we design, build, and deploy innovations that are capable of impacting society.
Two years later, we now have over 50 students working on large complex projects of all types, from autonomous safety drone systems to AI companions that will change the way that people learn. And each year we get a little more ambitious and we’re currently launching new projects to make impacts in the fields of health care and energy. And with all the success so far, I’m often asked, why did this work? I really feel like it boils down to the culture we’re developing.
We’ve created this environment where our students truly believe that they’re on a mission to change the world. And I personally believe that people will meet the expectation that’s set for them. And we’re beginning to move away from the traditional expectations set for college students, where their primary objective is to do well on tests and assignments. To an expectation that they will use their knowledge and their creativity to innovate new solutions for society. And we give our students the trust and the agency to conduct this kind of work.
When students in Luminosity get their first project, they often ask me how I expect them to solve it. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for step by step guide. So I have to tell them, you are being asked to do something that no one’s ever done before. There’s no playbook to innovation. You’re here to use your creative genius to find a solution to this problem. And for the students, I think this is greatly empowering because time after time they rise to the occasion. And all of this has allowed us to create a great culture of great passion and creativity in Luminosity. One where our students are staying up all night, night after night, having the time of their lives working together on things they know will one day make a difference.
At the end of the day, it’s a small group of people coming together with great energy to share their talents and knowledge for the purpose of making a large scale impact. And I’ve seen firsthand the power that groups like this can have. So my challenge for all of you would to be to go out and form your own action oriented community of problem solvers. Find your friends, your colleagues, and your family and bring them together in the pursuit of a challenge greater than anything you’ve ever tackled.
There is no playbook to the world’s next big idea, so don’t wait for one. Find your team, go out and pursue it because the impact you’re capable of having on this world is like no other.
Luminosity — where creative genius works | ASU KEDtalk
Zrioka: Welcome to ASU KEDtalks, the podcast. I’m your host Pete Zrioka. And I’m here today with Mark Naufel, director of strategic projects at Knowledge Enterprise Development. Mark heads the Luminosity Lab, a transdisciplinary team of students spearheading moonshot ideas and tackling large-scale problems. Thanks so much for joining me, Mark.
Naufel: Thanks for having me, Pete. Excited to be here.
Zrioka: So for people who haven’t seen your KEDtalk, can you kind of briefly describe what Luminosity Lab is and like what it’s oriented around and, and how big is it now? You said it’s about 40 people?
Naufel: It’s getting up there. So, you know, the initial year was 10 to 15 people. And it really has grown over time. I mean, that’s counting, we’re now launching one out at the Polytechnic campus and some alternative groups. And so, you know, each of these groups tend to be, you know, no more than 30 seems to work best. But I think people are really familiar with, you know, concepts like MIT Media Labs or Google X Labs or you know, the original Skunk Works through Lockheed Martin. It’s really these groups of people that come together and are just given freedom to create, take risks and pursue big, big ideas. And I think that ASU wanted to have something like this. They didn’t really, uh, you know, the leadership of ASU didn’t really specify anything they wanted to come out of it. They wanted the students to be the ones to decide. And so each year we go through an exercise, and it’s always an ongoing exercise, where the students really get to decide what they want to pursue. And I think the only, you know, mandate we have is that whatever they pursue should be capable of impacting society. And so sometimes those ideas are things they could potentially get spun out and launches companies of their own.
Naufel: But a lot of the initial projects were just things we could release open source or for the public good. So it’s a mix of both. And what’s nice is we have students who really just, first and foremost, they care about building things. They love it. They’re learning a lot and they really want to give back to society. And I think that’s what makes the culture really cool. There’s just this great energy around that.
Zrioka: How did it get started, how did the opportunity arise for you, and then how did you go about kind of gathering students from all over the university to put them together and point them towards like one big idea?
Naufel: Right. So it’s been, this is entering the third year, this year. So, about two and a half years ago, I was finishing up grad school, and I had a chance to go work out in Silicon Valley, but it was actually President Crow and Dr. Panch who sat down with me, asked me to stay here at ASU and told me they had something very unique for me to do. And what they wanted was this, you know, Skunk Works type team of students. They wanted some of our best students, hand selected from all areas of the institution. And they wanted a group to come together and pursue these big moonshot ideas. And so I think they chose me because, you know, when I was in undergrad, I had been, you know, student body president of the Tempe campus, was the student regent. I had been very active with the students and I think that they had a chance to see the people I brought around through the years and really liked the energy. And I think they wanted me to build this team that felt very fun, very energetic, a group that would stay up all night working on these projects. And so that initial group of students, it wasn’t too hard to find because at that point I was recently out of, you know, the institution. So there were a lot of people I knew right off the bat. And so it gave me a chance to call a lot of my good friends I had over the years that I knew were just extremely talented in certain areas, whether it was robotics or software. So I almost felt like Tony Stark, you know, calling up the Avengers. So I was just calling all my friends and saying, Hey, I have this unique thing, you know, and there was nothing there yet. So they just had to have that trust that we’d build something special. And I think, two years later, it’s really turned into this wonderful thing.
Zrioka: So the inspiration behind the luminosity lab, you referenced Skunk Works, you referenced Google X, right? So where did you draw inspiration from some other existing think tanks or institutes aside from those ones?
Naufel: Yeah, there, I mean there’s, there’s quite a few. I was actually given a book called “Organizing Genius” that covers a lot of these what they call great groups. And it was, you know, Skunk Works. It was, you know, Walt Disney and the, you know, the designers who created “Snow White,” it was Steve Jobs and the rebels who invented the computer, it was the Manhattan Project. It was all these small groups of people who came together for a short period of time to accomplish something great. And so that was really interesting cause you just got an idea of those, there’s various scopes of these groups, they accomplish different things, but what are the core principles that make them successful?
Naufel: So that was great to use as inspiration. I think, you know, with Luminosity we’re trying to do, you know, we’re not trying to be MIT Media Lab, we’re not trying to be Google X. We’re kind of trying to be our own thing. But, really just trying to create an environment where our students can come together, learn a lot, share their talents and really build and launch these really big projects.
Zrioka: Can you tell me about some of these big ideas and projects that have come out of Luminosity and which ones, like what are some of your pet projects? What are some of your favorites or you know, like
Naufel: Well I’ll share a few and I’ll, I’ll leave it pretty vague. You know, we actually started the, the mandate when we started was, you know, Skunk Works you know talked about the projects too much and so…
Zrioka: Yeah like, I want to address that cause like I have no idea where Luminosity is on campus. Like no idea. Is that by design?
Naufel: Initially by design, it was, no one was supposed to know about Luminosity. And so we didn’t talk to many people. We just had this small group, kind of did our thing. And I think as the years have gone by, people have started to hear about us. And I think by design now we’re, we’re kinda coming out more public in what we do. And so we used to be tucked away in the Goldwater Building. We took an old classroom and we just gutted it and turned it into this really cool lab space. People are in there tinkering, building. We got a bunch of 3D printers and, which it makes it fun, and now we’re moving to the first floor of Fulton. So we’ll have quite a bit of exposure there. It’ll give students access to a lot of the executives within KED and otherwise.
Naufel: And we’re hoping to, you know, bring people in from the institution and have them join our students in ideation and have our students kind of engage in projects throughout the institution in addition to the work that they get to conduct. So the projects, a lot of the time they do come from the students, but there are times where people just come to us. You know, President Crow sometimes will read a book and he’ll give it to us and he’ll say, Make this a reality, you know, tomorrow. And so, one of the projects we’ve been working on for a little while now is, we call it Axio. There’s a video out there floating somewhere. But it’s supposed to be this AI companion that would exist with a person from early childhood all the way to late adulthood. And it’s being designed where there’ll be multiple mediums where it exists, you know, on your phone, on the web, et cetera.
Naufel: But over time it learns about you, it talks to you, it actually pushes content out to you. It’s not really an assistant as much as it is this companion concept. Like decade of your life, there are a couple of objectives it has. So for a college student, the objective might be trying to help you determine what you want to do as a career. When you’re late adulthood, it’s, Hey, how do you now want to give back to society, et cetera, et cetera. And it really can leverage this information over the course of your life to deliver really meaningful, tailored content to you. But at its core, it’s supposed to facilitate this lifelong learning platform. And so yes, it learns everything about you, but it’s for the purpose of your personal growth and development. So it’s not like social media. It’s not like Facebook. It seems like everyone’s getting off that now.
Naufel: But if you’re a person who wants to advance your life, get better, improve, learn, this is really there to help you with that. And so, you know, piece of it is, it’s almost like a kind of Wikipedia for MOOC-like content. So those are becoming so popular now, but in terms of the actual platform, there is an opportunity for the community to come and curate that kind of content. And then this AI actually does learn from the community as a whole to help kind of tailor these interactions to you while also kind of building a personal model of you.
Zrioka: So you say learn from the community. It’d be like a community of these assistants?
Naufel: Whoever, no, it learns from whoever’s using the system. So in an ideal world, well we’re just launching beta right now, and it would be closed beta, so it’s a little while out, but in a future where people use this at scale, Axio as your companion, if there’s something you ask it about that it doesn’t know, it can actually go off, it might be in China, might be Australia, it might be wherever, and it can have a user kind of help teach them what that is. And they would go through a chain of validation between users and then that would get written into its, you know, memory per se. And so, and we also give the community the chance to actually create these tailored events that might lead to positive outcomes in an easy way. So you don’t have to know how to code. And so there’s a lot of things we’re testing out right now. So it’s very fun because we’re actually doing the development of it. So, you know, web app, mobile app, all the predictive analytics, you know our students are doing 100% of that work. But on the research side it is like, how do you, it’s a lot of this human computer interaction domain where it’s, okay, can we deliver this event and would it actually lead to an outcome?
Naufel: How can we actually quantify that and prove that et cetera? And so a lot of it’s exploratory, and it will continue to be a multi-year project. But it’s one where we’re able to leverage in our psychology students, our software developers, our UX/UI designers, I mean, it touches a lot of points, and most of our projects do touch a wide range of topics. So one of the first projects we ever did was that year one was this autonomous drone system, for, to facilitate safety escort on campus. So back when I did student government, I think a lot of people, I at ASU are familiar with the vans at night, that they’ll do safety escort, pick you up, drop you off. And so we wanted to figure out if there was some kind of way we could deploy an autonomous system, robotic system here on campus to benefit the community.
Naufel: And the students scoped out, Hey, we should do a safety escort service. So what they were able to build was a fully customized autonomous drone that would, they also built the mobile app for it. So if a student’s at night, they call the drone from the app, it would come to their location. They could choose whether they wanted a diffuse light or not, and it will follow them to their final destination. And all while a 360 camera feed goes to a dashboard that the police station would monitor. And so within six months of the lab existing, they actually had built that full kind of system in a kind of minimal viable product way. So we had the mobile app, we had the drone. From that point on, it was really, you know, there’s a lot of FAA regulations that stop you from flying those. Which I think for a lot of our students and engineers was good cause it’s like you could build something great, but that’s just one aspect to it. And so we, you know, then had them taking into considerations, regulations and how we might be able to get past that. So the next step was really the safety consideration. So they actually integrated a deployable parachute into the drone. So now it can, if the system fails, will deploy its own parachute, multiple functional safety. And we did apply for the FAA’s integration pilot program to be able to fly this, which we didn’t get. But, we do have a lot of the waivers we need to fly, just not autonomously yet. So it’s this ongoing thing. We’re exploring now, we’re starting to do a lot of work around international development as well.
Naufel: But we’re trying to explore, Hey, where could we use a drone? Maybe we change the mission of it, but can we take what we’ve built now and repurpose it to then serve kind of the underdeveloped world because some the regulations there are more lax and we could do things, I mean big topics there, you know, medical supply delivery, et cetera. So we have the students exploring multiple options there.
Zrioka: Did you guys come up with a name for that thing?
Naufel: Yeah, we call it Guardian Drones.
Zrioka:Guardian Drones. Good. I’m going to pitch you “chaper-drone.”
Zrioka: Because I like that one a lot.
Naufel: With the Guardian Drove though, I think drone, you know, it was, maybe it’s Guardian Robot. The word drones…
Zrioka: Has connotations, right?
Naufel: It was cool to see the students that first year cause we have a lot of designers, UX designers, UI designers, you know, bringing them together. A lot of the students had never worked like that interdisciplinary before. We do a lot of that work at ASU. But these engineers and designers came together when they were first designing the, the shell of the robot. And, yeah, a lot of the designers, a lot of our, you know, female engineers and designers said, look, this thing looks way too intimidating. And so I think they use the field of like biomimicry to, to model the, the drone is actually modeled after a raindrop. So you can see this thing and tell me if it looks like it, but just to make it look a little less intimidating, but it’s great to see like students taking those into consideration, designing around that. I think that one of our female engineers right off the bat, you know, they had built it with like a spotlight come down right on you.
Naufel: And she was the first to say, she’s like, she’s like, Hey, I’m probably the one that’s gonna use this. No one wants a spotlight on them.
Zrioka: Is this is an interrogation robot?
Naufel: Right, you know, you don’t want all that attention. And so, you know, it turned into an optional, very diffused light. And so I remember that was like the first few months of the lab and I just sat around sitting and thinking, yeah, this is how it’s supposed to work. Yeah. You know, designers, engineers, they’re actually taking the right things into consideration. They’re actually going to build this thing, deploy it and maintain it. And I think for all the students it’s such a great learning experience.
Zrioka: So you were active in student government as an undergrad and eventually became student regent for the Arizona Board of Regents. Can you tell me a little bit about that trajectory? Were these things that you kind of set your sight on or sights on or did it just kind of happen organically?
Naufel: No, not really. I, I was supposed to come to ASU originally as a mechanical engineer and I switched, you know, one month before to finance and just wanted to explore that. You know, I come from a family of engineers, so I kind of wanted to change it up. And I knew that the engineering curriculum would have taken way more of my time. And so I really wanted to use this as an opportunity to get engaged on campus. And so I joined a lot of organizations when I came here. But it’s funny, I originally joined the student government because they had, that year they had an intern department focused on technology and they were the only ones willing to give me a technology internship as a finance major.
Naufel: And so I really took the only opportunity I could, and so, you know, I had done a lot when I was young, I was coding when I was younger. So I knew how to do this stuff, but because I had that finance under my name that seemed to be the best opportunity. So when I went there or you know, our initial project that year was, you know, work with the university’s technology office to allow professors to post their syllabus online when students are, are registering for classes. So they actually did approve that, built that out, that exists today. And I thought that was such a cool thing. It’s such a little thing, but I know, I really appreciated being able to see the syllabus before I registered for a class. And so I stuck with it the next year as a sophomore.
Naufel: And by the end of my sophomore year, there were just a lot of people saying, Hey, you should run for this. You should run for this. And so I had a bunch of friends convinced me to, we had a lot of cool ideas and so, I went ahead and ran. And so I actually was that position my junior year of undergrad and it was just this amazing experience. We got to, you know, it was my chance to meet President Crow for the first time and just say, Hey, look, how do we work together to advance the institution? And really the mindset was the same then as it is now, you know, now I work here strategic projects. It’s like what do we do to enhance ASU? Think as a student, you know, I wanted to use that position as an opportunity to just, ASU is doing so many good things, so how could we help?
Naufel: And there’s so many little things we started then that have become big things. I always laugh, you know, with all the things we did, like the Inferno section was actually a thing at ASU. The football section, there wasn’t the official name, there was no official student section. So there was the Zona Zoo. And so I was like, look, we’re putting in a student wide vote, we’re going to lock this in, we’re going to build the student section, we’re going to call it whatever they choose. And so, you know, now I see everyone wearing the shirt. It’s such a big thing. We’re winning Pac-12, you know, section of the week nationally, we’re winning section of the week. And so it’s funny, everyone will like bring that up. And I’m like, of all the things we did that year, you know, that’s what gets remembered but.
Zrioka: Well, I mean, it’s athletics, athletics sticks in people’s heads.
Naufel: That’s probably how the, how the university feels a lot of the times. So, and then on ABOR was just a remarkable opportunity to be able to sit on the governing board, not just for ASU, but all three of the in-state universities. And just to play a role in kind of the strategic plans for all these institutions to be able to intimately understand how they work. You know, those two years were so helpful to me and I think it allows me now, you know, in my current role, to just understand the way the university works and how to operate through it.
Zrioka: So you mentioned you studied finance and you come from a family of engineers. I think you said your sister is an engineer?
Naufel: She’s, yeah, she’s great engineering.
Zrioka: So was, was that a shock to you, and you were originally going to be a mechanical engineer and then you switched at the last minute. Was that kind of like a shock to your parents?
Naufel: Oh absolutely. So, I mean, my parents are Lebanese, were born and raised there, came here in their college years and so, and my sister went here for biomedical engineering, and then went off to do her PhD at Northwestern. But yeah, my parents, you know, I think, I think because when I was younger I was so inclined towards it that it’s, you know, I always had a computer in my room, I was always doing that stuff.
Zrioka: You were a tech-focused kid.
Naufel: And, yeah, so I think they were surprised at first, but they were, they were very supportive of what I wanted to do. I think they knew at the end of the day I was, it would probably come full circle. So when I ended up getting my master’s in engineering, my dad, you know, he kind of gave me the nod, like almost like I told you so, but I think he realized it was the right path for me.
Zrioka: Right. You had to find it on your own.
Naufel: Right. And it gave me a chance to get engaged in those things. I feel like I do have a pretty good breadth of knowledge, you know, having done finance and analytics and engineering and, so I think that it really, it really turned out to be the best, best decision. So as much as they were shocked, you know, at the end of the day they support whatever we do. They’ve been kind of the best thing in my life.
Zrioka: And speaking of your father, you said, you told me earlier that your history with ASU goes a lot further back than your undergrad days, right? Your dad used to bring you to Founders Day here. How did that kind of color your perception of the university?
Naufel: So my dad, my family ended up in Arizona because of Motorola back in the day. They were the number one employer here. So they came from Texas to here and Motorola once a year would get a table at Founder’s Day. And my dad would, you know, get a plus one to that and he’d always bring me when I was younger. And so this was pretty much right when President Crow arrived in the early 2000s. And, you know, I’d be, I was younger, either middle school, high school, and I’d go to this with my dad and President Crow would get up there and talk, and my dad had been going to these and I remember my dad would always like lean over to me. He’s like, watch this guy talk. He is incredible. He has a vision, he has a strategy. And for me, I just was like, I’ve never had my dad tell me that about anyone before, you know, we, we didn’t, he doesn’t watch sports, you know…
Zrioka: It carried a lot of weight.
Naufel: Actors, you know what I mean? Ain’t coming from Lebanon. This was, you know, it wasn’t really politicians he was into, it was President Crow. The guy has a strategy. He executes, he’s doing great things for the state. And so, I think I just, I always knew, you know, from, from then on I was like, it’d be great if I had a chance to work with him here. And so it’s, it’s really been crazy the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to be here and to kind of build out these big initiatives for the institution.
Zrioka: Director of Strategic Projects. It’s a pretty lofty title for someone your age. And how old are you again?
Zrioka: So, okay. 26 like, so in a lot of ways you’re, you’re really fresh out of school. Like how has that colored your perception of all these things that you’ve accomplished? And when I say accomplished, I mean setting up a Skunk Works for President Crow and being the student regent and the class or, the student body president, et cetera. Like how does that kinda put everything in perspective for you?
Naufel: Right. I definitely think it’s been beneficial. I get, when I took this job, I was 23 at the time, so when I was asked to build this out, I obviously had never had that experience before. And it did, it made me nervous. But I think that was healthy. I think if you’re not nervous about something, you’re not passionate about it. And then I kind of realized that you’re always just ready enough, you know, people never probably feel ready for the opportunity they’re given, but I think being young gave me a chance to bond with that team and I think that was by design.
Naufel: They wanted someone young, that could bring these students together, stay up all night. That first year we, we had lab space that was only available after 6 p.m. So we get together at 6 p.m. And sometimes stay up till 2 a.m. most nights just building stuff, working on stuff. And it was one of the best years of my life.
Zrioka: You’re now two years into this grand experiment of the Luminosity Lab. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s next for the project? You mentioned Polytech.
Naufel: Not talking about specific development projects coming out from Luminosity. We’re scaling out the program because as much as, yeah, we hand select students who are engaged in this work, we want that to engage as many students as we possibly can. So currently what that looks like is so far we’ve operated on Tempe and we might have students from other campuses join us.
Naufel: But we’re going to launch campus-specific Luminosity Labs starting with Poly and then later Downtown and West. And each of those Luminosities, they’ll still be interdisciplinary, but they’ll probably play to the strengths of the campus. And then while those are being launched, we’re going to launch a Luminosity out in DC, the new ASU DC building.
Zrioka: Oh, fantastic.
Naufel: So we’ll have a group of students out there and they’re going to focus primarily on sustainability initiatives and then I’m sure they’ll take on some public policy projects, some international development projects, and potentially some analytics projects later. But we are going to have a great strategic partner out there who will help oversee it, get those students connected to the sustainability world and they’ll work on big-scale development projects to make an impact there. And then potentially, you know, launching Luminosity Labs through the PLuS Alliance in the U.K. focused on healthcare out at Kings College.
Naufel: And so we actually, right now we’re developing the strategic plan of where would we launch these labs in association to ASU globally and build this brand around it. That luminosity means something in terms of how you operate the culture there, et cetera. And then how do we get that to be a self-sustaining model. And so that’s kind of what the work we’re doing right now. And I think that DC will come up, you know, this summer, the campuses, will come up here in the next year. But I think it’s really exciting because now that things are working, we can just scale that out and grow in a way where it doesn’t grow too big and kind of maintains. But I think once we get there, it will be great to see students potentially, let’s say we have students in the U.K. Working with an advisor out there to be connected into that healthcare system and working with the team out in Tempe who are currently engaged in a development project around healthcare. Having students be able to work remotely throughout the world on these big development projects will be great because I think that’s the way the world works right now. More so than ever. I mean, when I was in industry very briefly, it’s, you know, you’re on calls with people in China or in India all the time. You’re gonna work with remote, remotely with groups throughout the world. So I think the more our students get engaged in that now, the better.
Zrioka: If someone wants to learn more about Luminosity, how can they find more information?
Naufel: We actually have a new website that’s in development. That’ll talk a lot about the projects. And we’ll start doing some social media. We’ll start to have a presence here as we get bigger. So I’d say in the next few months…
Zrioka: Keep your eyes peeled?
Naufel: Keep your eyes peeled. We do have job openings continuously open, so people can apply at all times. We’re always looking at those resumes. We might be at capacity, but I might see those resumes and then call in six months or at the end of the year. And so apply. Reach out to me for now. Contact me, whether you’re faculty or students and we can find a way to get them engaged.
Zrioka: Well, it sounds like ASU and eventually the world is poised to become a much more creative, innovative and productive place. Thanks so much for being with me today, Mark.
Naufel: Great. Thanks so much, Pete.
Zrioka: If you’re interested in more from Mark Naufel, watch his ASU KEDtalk at research.asu.edu/kedtalks, subscribe to our podcast through your favorite podcast directory and find us on Facebook and Twitter @ASUresearch.
Luminosity Lab is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new start-up companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.