Archive for November, 2010
Doug Gross at CNN has a list of the top 10 tech product failures in recent years (hat tip to Greg Aharonian’s Patnews newsletter). The list includes:
- Apple Newton
- Google Wave
- Microsoft KIN
- Atari Jaguar
- Virtual Reality
Some great ideas and even some cool technology went into most of these products, but they failed for various reasons. Wrong business model, easy or vastly superior alternatives, low-cost “good enough” alternatives, benefits too narrow, company out of touch with the market, poor execution, premature launch, failure to learn and iterate to respond to the market, etc. Their failures important for other innovators to consider, for there are many things that can stand between you and innovation success. Success is more likely to favor the the flexible few who learn from the initial failure and have funds left to iterate to give the market what is really wanted.
I was surprised to see Virtual Reality on the failed tech list, but it certainly hasn’t lived up to all the hype. Here is CNN’s take:
Remember when we were on the verge of living high-tech virtual lives?
When optic sensors, VR helmets and power gloves were supposed to have us living in “The Matrix?” Or at least on the Holodeck?
Turns out, the promises were a little ahead of their time.
“The technology of the 1980s was not mature enough,” says Stephen Ellis, who continues hacking away at virtual reality at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The main effect of commercial VR-tech that’s rolled out since then has largely been making the user want to throw up.
Virtual reality may have a pathway similar to RFID (radiofrequency identification technology). Years of hype hindered by high costs and inadequate execution, but successful niches will be found where its impact can become enormous as the technology becomes useful and affordable for those applications, while not being nearly as ubiquitous as pundits once projected. There is something there, making it far too early to write off virtual reality or several other of CNN’s top 10 failures as genuine failures. For those who can learn from the marketplace and adjust business models and technology to exploit genuine unmet needs, there are exciting opportunities that we may see shortly.
I am delighted to see Wired Magazine feature a story about the new book on the largely untold story of one of the original inventors of the computer. Nearly everyone has heard the standard story of the invention of the ENIAC computer at Penn State by a team led by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr. However, as is so often the case in the world of innovation, those who get public credit for an invention may not be the original inventors. In many cases, one can make a case that key elements of a successful invention were borrowed or even stolen from a neglected inventor who deserves at least some of the credit.
In “Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist Tells the Tale of the World’s First Computer” by Gary Wolf, we learn that John Vincent Atanasoff with his partner Clifford Berry were already working in the 1930s on assembling a computer in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State University. Their invention was finished in 1942, four years before ENIAC was finished. About the size of a large desk, the Atanasoff-Berry computer (ABC) could do laborious calculations rapidly. It was relatively unknown, but was known and admired by other inventors working on related problems, including some of the team that would develop ENIAC.
Now a novelist will help set the record straight. Jane Smiley, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has written The Man Who Invented the Computer to tell Atanasoff’s story. He had a successful career, but his magnum opus, the computer, was “forgotten until the late 1960s, when a legal battle broke out over the patents that the ENIAC project leaders had filed on basic computing concepts. In the course of the bruising litigation between the Sperry Rand Corporation, which had purchased the ENIAC patents, and Honeywell, which wanted to break them, it was proven that the ENIAC team stole key ideas from Atanasoff. The patents were declared invalid by a federal judge. But Atanasoff’s achievement never became widely known or celebrated.”
Smiley learned about his life at Iowa State, where Smiley studied and taught.
[At Iowa State,] she met someone who plays a minor, ignominious role in her tale: a professor who told her that, as a graduate student, he had been the one to dismantle and throw away the prototype of some strange calculating device that had been left behind in the basement of the physics building. The first digital computer was lost. “He ultimately went on to become the head of the computer science department,” Smiley says, “and he told me that destroying that computer was one of the great regrets of his life.” It is out of such personal twists and ironies—a novelist’s materials—that Smiley builds her tale, capturing both Atanasoff’s genius and, at the same time, the forces of chance that influence invention.
It is of such twists and ironies that the journeys of many other great inventors are formed, some of whom we discuss in Conquering Innovation Fatigue. The problems that deprive inventors and innovators of the due credit and reward for their work are often part of the innovation fatigue factors that can wear innovators down and decrease incentives for innovation for many. There are things inventors can do to improve the odds of success, and of receiving credit for their work. May great inventors never be forgotten!
I’m back from the week-long Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Salt Lake City, Utah, where over 4,200 engineers from around the country and many other nations were gathered. Hundreds of technical papers were presented from researchers and leaders pursuing advanced in energy, biotech, materials, nanotechnology, chemicals, and related fields. Energy was probably the biggest theme, but bio-related R&D was extremely hot as well.
The Division that I Chair, Forest Bioproducts Division of AIChE, had over 50 papers presented on topics related to biofuels and bioproducts from plant resources such as cellulosic or lignocellulosic biomass. We learned about advanced in biomass gasification, in fermentation of biomass to product fuels, in managing feedstock, in converting syngas or pyrolysis products into value-added chemicals, and many other topics.
I was especially impressed with a keynote speech from Ann Lee, Senior Vice President of Process Research and Development at Genentech, the biotech company that is now part of the Roche Group. Ann outlined Genentech’s pioneering work as the first biotech IPO, the first company to market a recombinant DNA drug, the first company to develop at humanized therapeutic antibody (Xolair), the first company to develop a therapeutic antibody for cancer (Rituxan), and the first in many other areas. They were paving new ground time after time, taking on huge risks and uncertainties, and facing the numerous barriers that innovators continue to face on their way to success. Through it all, Genentech managed to cultivate and maintain a culture of innovation with commitment at the top to drive past or through the barriers to achieve success in so many areas.
The development of personalized antibodies and antibody fragments for very specific and successful cancer treatments has involved visionary efforts that tapped the expertise of thinkers across multiple boundaries, exemplifying what can be done when a country eradicates internal “not invented here” syndrome. Herceptin, the first personalized custom antibody treatment for cancer (HER2+ cancer cells in breast cancer) is a remarkable advance, as is the related Lucentis drug for treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Chemists and chemical engineers working together made these innovations possible, and I applaud Genentech for their innovation success.
One innovation-related tidbit I picked up in a session of the meeting that I chaired for the Management Division concerns resources to help start-ups. The Wayne Brown Institute (VentureCapital.org) has developed a screening system based on 15 criteria that have proven remarkably effective in gauging the health of a start-up. In one study, 80% of those that scored high on their assessment were still in business 10 years later – a remarkable statistic. I’ll be looking into this resource in more detail in the future.
Say, do you know which university led the nation last year in terms of high-tech start-ups generated? MIT? Close! It was actually the University of Utah, with 23. Nearby BYU had 11, is remarkable given its much smaller level of funding for R&D (they typically lead or are in the top 3 in terms of start-ups per dollar of research). Interesting. I saw plenty of evidence of active innovation in the Utah area. One of the highlights of the visit for me was a tour of Ceramatec in Salt Lake City, an innovation company developing ionic ceramic membranes that support fuel cells and other advanced products.