Skip to content
Thomson Reuters
Executive Perspectives

EXCLUSIVE: Caltech’s new sustainability awards to drive disruptive innovation

Dr. Harry Atwater of Caltech is one of the world’s leading researchers of Applied Physics and Materials Science , specializing in technology related to photovoltaics and solar energy. According to Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators, a subset of the Web of Science, Dr. Atwater ranks among the top 1% most-cited authors in both Physics and Materials Science, based on citations tracked over the last decade. As director of Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute, he is also the visionary and catalyst behind a new set of awards (the Resonate Awards) to recognize unsung heroes in scientific advances related to sustainability. Thomson Reuters Sustainability sat down with him to find out about this exciting initiative to bring daylight to breakthrough achievements in energy science and sustainability.

Sustainability: Dr. Atwater, please help us understand the reason for these new awards.

Dr. Atwater: I don’t know how much you know about Caltech but we are a small, very science focused, globally reaching institute of technology with over 30 Nobel prize winners and a fairly successful track record in developing fundamental advances in science. Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute was formed in 2009 out of a growing conviction that in the 21st century our fundamental problems will be multidimensional, and that includes problems related to sustainability and science. Our goal is to foster transformative advances in new forms of energy generation, storage and distribution, and more generally in the science of sustainability. To boil it down, we are about trying to advance fundamental changes which will have a very significant impact on the sustainability of the world. The Resonate Awards focus on innovative, paradigm-shifting work from individuals whose ideas are worthy of significant, widespread recognition.

Sustainability: Is part of the goal here to attract capital to these new ideas?

Dr. Atwater: Yes. These are ideas which are just on the cusp of being transformational, but are to date unrecognized, to a large degree. These awards can shine a light on the work, and help the winners accelerate the realization of their potential.

Sustainability: Could you tell us a bit about the judges and the benefit to the winners for receiving the awards?

Dr. Atwater: There is no monetary prize to the awards themselves, but rather they create visibility and recognition for very good, investment-worthy ideas. Key decision-makers and potential funders like Michael Dell, David Crane (NRG Energy), or the CEO of the MacArthur Foundation will be attending the awards ceremony.   The judges are also noteworthy and include a broad range of perspectives, from people like Dr. Arun Majumdar, Vice President for Energy at Google, Dr. Susan Hackwood, Executive Director of the California Council on Science & Technology, Dr. Bill Weihl, Sustainability Guru at Facebook, Dr. Paul Alivisatos, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Mr. Koji Omi, former Japanese Minister of Finance, and others. These are folks who have worked in the private and public sectors to advance sustainability science, and who have mentored innovators in this space.

Sustainability: How many applicants did you have to consider?

Dr. Atwater: We started out with around 100 applications, and after a fairly exhaustive review of their research, we narrowed it down to 5 awardees.

Sustainability: You mentioned the awards focus on “sustainability science”. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Dr. Atwater: Caltech’s focus here has been on promoting the understanding of the fundamental elements of how our economic, social and scientific environments interact to drive sustainable change. This is the “sustainability science”, and it’s about new scientific principles or discoveries which can benefit the world over the long term, and the awards are examples.

Sustainability: Let’s go through the awardees to elaborate.

Note: EXCLUSIVE: Thomson Reuters Sustainability will be releasing the names of the winners and details of their work on Monday, May 19th.


This interview was conducted by Tim Nixon, Thomson Reuters Sustainability’s managing editor.  He can be contacted at

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Growing sustainable lending EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Transparency, the foundation to any solution for climate EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: How green can a building be? EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Follow the Flare EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Preparing for the end of the Oil Age EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Message from Davos: We are Sleepwalking our Way to Catastrophe EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Corporate leaders at COP24 EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: What makes an environmental leader in today’s world? EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Sustainability emerging in the Middle East EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Cultural exchange to encourage a future of sustainability