Archive for inventing
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’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.
Nussbaum on Design (BusinessWeek) has a though-provoking column that mentions several innovation principles from designer Diego Rodriquez. One of these is “Killing good ideas is a good idea.” That’s the kind of counter-intuitive blasphemy that merits reflection. Of course, developing good ideas is essential, but without the killing phase, good ideas can lead to “idea cancer.” Ideas from late-stage idea cancer strangle many organizations and many minds–when ideas grow without control, unregulated and unchecked by proper objectives and reality. Ideas can metastasize and choke the arteries of business, cloud the mind, and weaken all life support systems in the end, unless they are regulated and killed at the appropriate time. So many great failures begin with good ideas, and lots of them.
Innovation is often more about execution and planning than idea generation. A weak idea, implemented ITERATIVELY with the right talent, can be adjusted based on feedback from the system (e.g., the market) and become successful. Even mediocre ideas can beat good ideas if there are great skills, good leaders, and good execution. But add an occasional great idea to the mix and the success can be remarkable, if the dream isn’t cluttered with lots of distracting good ideas along the way.
Innovation requires discipline. One has to focus and learn iteratively in the process, and not let unrestrained good ideas shut down your innovation engines with “idea cancer.”
Crazy Foods, an intriguing spot I photographed in a small and actually very innovative town in Veracruz State, Mexico, represents the wild and crazy ideas of prospective innovators that, like most innovative concepts, end up in failure. Brilliant ideas deemed crazy by others often really are, and those that have potential for crazy success can face numerous innovation barriers, like those we document in Conquering Innovation Fatigue. The way of the innovator is often hard, but there are shortcuts and work-arounds to many of the barriers. Innovation success can be much more likely, both at the personal and corporate levels, if you know what others have learned and understand how to deal with the threats that will surely come your way.
May 2010 be a great year for crazy and successful innovation!
When traveling, I feel like I have a gift in meeting cool innovators on airplanes. Almost every time I fly, I meet someone whose story intrigues me. Recently I met a manager from Shurtape, the company that introduced the innovative Frog Tape® product. Frog Tape® is a masking tape for use with latex paint that prevents leakage of paint under the tape. This has been a persistent problem with masking tape of the years. While masking tape provides a barrier against paint, when wet paint hits the edge of the tape, it can often bleed into or under the tape because the tape is creped and has little valleys and ridges of texture. This can result in a less than clean line between the painted and unpainted regions, and extra clean up to remove places where bleeding under the tape occurred.
One proposed solution to this problem has been to use superabsorbent material in the tape that can swell when wetted with the moisture in latex paint. Swelling of the superabsorbent can help block off channels and reduce bleeding. The problem has been that mixing superabsorbent with masking tape can greatly increase the cost of the product. One of inventor, George Gruber, found a clever solution (see U.S. Patent No. 6,828,008). Instead of trying a complex and expensive formulation of the substrate or adhesive material combined with superabsorbent, he realized (if I infer or understand correctly) that all that was really needed was just a little superabsorbent powder on the edges of the tape. He found a simple mechanical way to grind the powder into the sides of a roll of tape, resulting in just the right amount of the swellable material in just the right place. Result: tremendous sealing performance right where it is needed at very low cost. Rather than incremental improvements in formulating a mixture across the entire tape, he “leap frogged” to a low-cost, simple, and patentable solution: apply superabsorbent to the edges only in an easy application method to regular tape. Bingo. Shurtape was smart enough to recognize the potential of the invention and acquire it in a great example of open innovation and technology licensing. I’ve read user comments about the product compared to competitive products, and think we’ve got a potential winner here.
Don’t be constrained by the assumptions you began with or those that hold your competitors in place. Look for the surprisingly elegant, low-cost solutions that can help you leap frog your way to innovation success.
Today I heard a story about Norwegian carpenters who literally turned what they knew upside down to solve a difficult problem through innovation. This occurred in the nineteenth century in the wild Western frontier, where a team of Norwegian carpenters were helping to build a large and complex structure in Manti, Utah. These men were in charge of building the roof. They had built plenty of ships in Norway, but never a roof, and puzzled over what to do. Rather than become discouraged, they decided to draw upon what they knew of shipmaking to build a strong, robust structure like the hull of a ship – and then turn it upside down to make a roof.
In innovation, there are often complex problems to be solved and barriers to be overcome that seem beyond your experience and capabilities. Sometimes, the solution is to draw upon what you already know, but turn it upside down, applying it in a totally new way. The inventions and innovations that change the world often come from the intersections between disciplines, where solid knowledge in one area is applied creatively in a new area. So innovators, take what you know and be ready to turn it upside down or inside out.
As part of the series on Magic and Innovation, today I’m using a simple magic trick with a balloon to illustrate some of the trials in producing successful innovations within a corporation. I begin by discussing the challenges and barriers that inventors and prospective innovators within a corporation face.
Available on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiF6IQO79ag
My co-author, Mukund Karanjikar, suggested this demonstration of the principles of combining elements in new ways as a basic building block of inventing. It’s not explicitly discussed in the book, for the material most relevant to inventors already assumes skills in inventing, but it is a good reminder of some ways to strengthen whatever innovations are being pursued.
One can find unexpected phenomena through combinations of existing elements either by serendipity and luck, or by targeted exploration due to creative tinkering coupled with a thorough understanding an area (in this case Newton’s laws of motion and the physics of momentum transfer). The results may be entirely predictable in hindsight (this is often the cause for obviousness rejections from the Patent Office), but may actually be surprising and unexpected at the time of the discovery or invention. So here’s a 57-second clip featuring my son and a little momentum transfer to remind us of a couple basic concepts.