There are two parts to the innovation puzzle, and they both matter a lot - I would argue they are both essential to the very existence of societies. The first part is the seed, the spark, the germ of an idea; that requires ingenuity and a certain kind of personal preparation to recognize a great idea when one discovers it. The second part is the process through which the innovation gets monetized and distributed to a society of individuals to create value in the broadest sense of the word. A recent series of articles about Thomas Edison in Time magazine started me thinking about innovation in this way.
This issue is sort of important, as the future of our society could hang in the balance. An overstatement? Think about our society's reliance upon energy consumption and urgent decisions about how to develop and allocate that energy. That's just one example that proves the point.
|The Seeds of Innovation
The lead article about Thomas Edison in the July 5th issue of Time lays out the importance of the seeds very nicely. (Why does the 5 July issue appear in my mailbox on 26 June? What's with that?) Nothing happens without the seeds; no seed, no innovation, no societal benefit. This guy Edison was the ultimate creator of seeds. As a teenager I toured his museum/lab in Menlo Park, America's first industrial R&D facility, and I was blown away. That tour probably contributed significantly to my decision to pursue an engineering education. But I digress.
I think we all tend to forget the critical importance of this component of innovation. In my view, a society just needs to (1) adequately educate its people in a certain way to cultivate the required ingenuity, (2) provide suitably qualified people with a decent place to work and the tools to perform that work, (3) motivate those people with money (but not too much) and employment security (but not too much), (4) leave them alone, and (5) be patient (within reason). I've seen this work in the corporate world, and I think it works in academia too. By the way, the financial return on this investment - as measured by the original investor - is rather poor. That is certainly an impediment.
The Time article does sound the alarm about the recent degradation of American innovation generally. Evidence is presented by way of our reduced federal share of GDP spent on R&D overall, our reduced share of bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering, and our lagging federal spending on energy R&D in particular. (I also believe that we have been socially devaluing our technologists in favor of our talking heads and celebrities - but don't get me started!) These are all troubling trends, which need to be reversed.
The bottom line: Develop the seeds or you get nuthin'.
|The Processes of Innovation
Next comes the processes by which seeds get sown, inventions get commercialized, and benefits get bestowed upon the masses. This is the subject of countless articles, theories, academic treatises, and business-school case studies. And, of course, there have been equally countless success stories in which innovative (and not so innovative) products and services have been fully developed and commercialized for public and private profit. (These processes are where Trilogy Associates has focused its talents for more than 20 years.)
One example, among many, of such a process paradigm (sorry, but the word fits) is the notion of Open Innovation, which was originated by Henry Chesbrough of U.C. Berkeley in a 2003 book with that title. It's basically the concept defined as "how a company works with partners, agencies and other companies outside its own organization to foster innovation" through a range of partnering, licensing and joint-venture activities. Paul Barrett of PA Consulting Group recently published an article dealing with their recent survey to gauge the status of Open Innovation within 30 global companies. In general, most companies agree that Open Innovation is key to the future success of the business, but relatively few have so far adopted a structured or company-wide approach to it.
I think we can all agree that it is rare indeed for an inventor - individual or corporate - to have the wherewithal to fully commercialize its technology using only internal resources. Other organizations typically must play some role, often a leading role, in the process. For this reason it is very important that all the parties to such an arrangement devise their own representative measures of the value of the technology in question. Ideally, these various measures will coalesce to a uniform value, at least at the conclusion of negotiations if not initially. In the simplest case a technology buyer and a technology seller must each conduct their own assessment and eventually come to an agreed-upon economic value. I've published a qualitative, guiding checklist for this purpose; check it out.
The bottom line: Pick an innovation process that suits you, standardize it if possible, and make it work for your organization.
|Two Great Seed Examples
I've recently come across two examples of ingenious product concepts that I believe could find widespread use and convey great user benefit if/when they are fully commercialized. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, "ingenious" may be hard to define, but I know it when I see it.
Researchers at MIT have developed a method of using a basic cell phone coupled with a cheap and simple plastic device clipped onto the screen to estimate refractive errors and focal range of eyes. As a result rudimentary, and perhaps fully adequate, vision exams could become available to anyone with a cell phone. Check out the article describing this idea and especially the included video to better understand the principle. Do you think this just might negatively impact the array of services offered by optometrists?
Ventus Medical has created a device offering a simpler, alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. This new therapy uses the body's own breathing to create positive airway pressure, eliminating the need for surgery or the discomfort caused by current continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices. No mask, no tubing, no machine. Do you think existing CPAP suppliers might be a bit concerned about, and interested in, this idea?
Resources from our Archives
Check out our
to view my published articles, presentations and white papers on a variety of topics.
And, you can examine an
of my prior newsletters (since February 2007).
|What does Trilogy do?
Trilogy Associates facilitates business growth and renewal through commercialization of new products, providing the following services:
- Opportunity assessment
- Business planning and enterprise growth strategies
- New-product conceptualization, commercialization and marketing
- Market research and competitive assessment
- Business development and partnering
- Market and technological due diligence
- Assessment of the therapeutic and diagnostic potential of novel technologies
- Design of efficient and effective development strategies for early-stage biomedical products
- Business and technical writing/publishing
Inquiries to establish whether and how we might support your business initiatives are always welcome. Contact us.