Invest In Interns To Build Hawaii's Future - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Patrick Sullivan

Patrick Sullivan is a scientist, engineer, technologist, entrepreneur, businessman, author, public speaker and futurist. He founded Oceanit — a self-funded company that produces technology from homegrown research, development and engineering — in 1985.


I’ve been accused of being an optimist. I’m guilty as charged — but for good reason.

Like most, I follow the news and realize that there are many valid reasons to be pessimistic: Hawaii’s cargo cult tourist economy. The ALICE report, detailing the struggles of those who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. Incomplete or absent government policies. Outmigration. The global pandemic. And so on.

However, my guess is that most readers have heard this all before. So, at the risk of sounding contrarian, I would like to share why, despite all of these issues, I’m still optimistic about the future of Hawaii.

Over the last 30-plus years, we have conducted a summer intern program at Oceanit, the “mind to market” company I run, where we begin with ideas and bring them to life in the world.

The majority of our interns are from Hawaii and are working on their undergraduate or graduate college educations. We build cohorts of people from diverse backgrounds — some students from public schools, some from private schools, some from economically or socially challenged upbringings, others with unique life experiences.

When we started this program, we hoped to make a small contribution to building Hawaii’s future. Each year we are overwhelmed by the number of qualified applicants. So far, we have hosted over 700 paid summer interns, investing many millions of dollars.

Since Oceanit began its internship program, the company has invested millions in working with young people. Here, its 2019 interns are (from second left): Talia McNamara, Frank Pang, Shaylin Marn, Tessa Scott and Kelly Ann Lee. They are flanked by (at far left) Ken Cheung, Oceanit’s science and technology director  and (at right) CEO Patrick Sullivan and Linda Kawamura, Oceanit’s HR director. 

We expect a high level of professionalism and performance, and our interns invariably respond with quality contributions. The tragedy is that each year we receive way too many high-quality applicants, most of them from Hawaii.

Our summer intern program is very structured and includes weekly seminars on topics such as innovation, community, inequality, the environment, etc. The last thing the interns do before returning to school is an “innovation project.”

It is an open-ended challenge to explore an idea — their idea, any idea — to make the world a better place. We don’t tell interns what to focus on but do encourage them to consider something that they care deeply about.

We also encourage interns to think big thoughts about the future and what could be — what technology, science or engineering breakthroughs could make the world a better place.

Conversations range from digital medicine to quantum encrypted communication. Interns see the jagged edges of science unfold, revealing fantastic possibilities that feed the future, enabled by changing “methods and materials” — what was once impossible becomes possible.

Consider the impact of penicillin on surgery or the jet engine on trans-Pacific flight and how these and other innovations changed the world.

These young people are a lens into the future and it’s always interesting and informative to learn what they care about.

Their ideas are incredibly diverse too: ways to remove plastics from the ocean, reduce the risk of falls by the elderly, recycle batteries, remove birds from airport runways, breathe underwater like Aquaman, manage toxic waste, regrow amputated limbs, help socially disadvantaged kids improve their English, reinvent agriculture with artificial intelligence, sequester carbon, etc.

2018 Oceanit intern Julia Kawano talks with a visiting news crew about computer vision AI and image manipulation. 

Each innovation is presented and defended with scientific, economic and business analyses arguing why the idea is worth pursuing and how it will affect the world.

What we consistently see is that contrary to what local folks may think, local talent is of a very high quality. These young people have both the education and the imagination to create the future. Each year we watch them transform from being uncertain to finding focus and drive to pursue the things that matter to them.

What strikes me is that while these young people see the future, there is little community interest in understanding what they see. After many years, I’ve concluded that when it comes to building Hawaii’s future, the kids are fine —  it’s the grownups that leave something to be desired.

Today, the Hawaii business community focuses almost entirely on the tourism and related industries at the exclusion of just about everything else.

While this has been economically beneficial for some and has enabled Hawaii’s economy to grow, it has cultivated economic Group Think that believes tourism is the only economic option for Hawaii.

This hyper-focus creates few high-paying jobs and further underscores a lack of interest or trust in young people, their ideas or their interests. In fact, many teachers and parents implicitly communicate that to be successful, you must leave Hawaii.

Moreover, policies developed by government rarely address the minimum investment of attention, support or capital needed to entertain diverse industries.

Instead, these industries are given only enough attention to say, “We tried,” but not enough to actually open the aperture of the future. It’s no wonder that many talented young people don’t see their future selves building careers in Hawaii.

An unexpected consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s accelerating time, and the future is coming into focus faster than it would under normal circumstances.

A spotlight is shining on the frailty of tourism, illuminating both the industry’s lack of long-term sustainability and its contribution to chronic inequality.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to think deeply about our future — the future we all want. A future that creates diverse jobs that provide a living wage. A future where our economic ecosystem values education and imagination. A future where kids don’t have to leave to find their own success.

In my opinion, Hawaii’s future is not limited as much by the physical world as it is by our imagination.

Patrick Sullivan speaks with the 2019 interns about their innovation projects. 

I see a future version of Hawaii where we create solutions “from Hawaii to the world,” rather than the present approach where we spend resources to import goods and services and bring in “experts” while we export our most precious resource: our kids.

When I talk like this, it’s pretty common to hear, “That sounds good, but how does that actually happen? Could you be more specific?“

If I were to name just a few areas that are ripe for opportunity, I would include artificial intelligence, green hydrogen energy, quantum computation and communication. I explored innovation and the ways we think in depth in a book I published this year, “Intellectual Anarchy, The Art of Disruptive Innovation.”

In the immediate, having found ourselves in a pandemic with an urgent global need for accurate and fast testing, we pivoted to inventing and manufacturing a COVID-19 rapid saliva test. We are seeking to address an enormous global need for 20 to 50 million tests per day.

We’re in the midst of a real-life example of how we can do more than tourism in Hawaii. In the ideal, we would have the manufacturing infrastructure in place in the islands to make these billions of tests in Hawaii, thereby creating and growing quality manufacturing jobs.

Also, note that two prior Oceanit interns are currently part of the team working on this technology. One earned a Ph.D. in engineering, the other earned a master’s degree in engineering and both came back to Hawaii.

Share Your Ideas

To find our future, we need to do more than imitate Silicon Valley, copy Singapore or search for a silver bullet or magic formula.

To discover our better future, we need to begin by looking into the mirror, we need to take responsibility, we need to bet on Hawaii.

It boils down to a choice. Do we decide to bet on Hawaii’s people or hope that someone shows up to save us? Our future is what we choose.


Read this next:

Big Island Facilities Need To Work Together For Hawaii's New Normal


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About the Author

Patrick Sullivan

Patrick Sullivan is a scientist, engineer, technologist, entrepreneur, businessman, author, public speaker and futurist. He founded Oceanit — a self-funded company that produces technology from homegrown research, development and engineering — in 1985.


Latest Comments (0)

Yes - internships are so valuable to both parties, the intern and the sponsoring entity.  The pre-assignment for all interns should be a class on "how to respect your internship and both get and give the most while in it"....

ScottyH · 8 months ago

Kudos to everyone who encourages education, especially higher education.  However, the brutal fact is that only 55% of Hawaii's high school graduates go on to college.  Furthermore, only 84% graduate on time.  Hawaii's public school system is failing us.  Hawaii doesn't have the labor force necessary to substantially expand Hawaii's high tech sector.

sleepingdog · 8 months ago

Great ideas, only problem is that when we train the youth they only leave because of the economic structure of the islands.  That has to change.  Innovative ideas and training  will not keep the youth here if there is no jobs to be had.All the good intentions are no good if there is no opportunity on the islands.Ireland had the very similar problems that exist in Hawaii for centuries because there were no opportunities after receiving an education or training in a trade.They changed their economy, grew and the youth stayed and prospered.  There are many examples out there, but Hawaii can not just stay this little hamlet in the ocean.  It is not sustainable as a future for the youth.   

ndpndnt · 8 months ago

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