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How Industry Takes Science Outside the Box

How Industry Takes Science Outside the Box

Five organizations' strategies for enabling innovation.

Every second year since 2004, Finland's President has presented the $1.5 million Millennium Technology Prize to an individual whose innovation "improves the quality of human life and promotes sustainability in many ways." World Wide Web developer Tim Berners-Lee and Shuji Nakamura, inventor of the MOCVD technique for manufacturing energy-efficient light, are past winners. And on April 8, an audience will gather at the New York Academy of Sciences as four finalists for the 2008 prize are announced.

Finland's "tribute to life-enhancing technological innovations," is just one, albeit the grandest, in an exploding field of awards, books, conventions, fairs, and symposia celebrating innovative science.

Magazines including Business Week, Fast Company, and Wired publish annual lists of the world's most innovative companies, and MIT's Technology Review crowns the year's Top 100 Innovators. The FIRST Robotics Competition, Tech Challenge, and LEGO Leagues established by Dean Kamen—himself the innovator of several important medical technologies—inspires more than 150,000 youths in 38 countries to innovate and "dream of becoming science and technology heroes." Through his Innovation 25 Strategy Council, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, science advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan, urges his compatriots to undertake creative technology endeavors. And, as NYAS President Ellis Rubinstein notes in his letter introducing this issue of the magazine, leaders of cities the world over are competing for the unofficial title of Idea Capital. Even the New York Academy of Sciences is developing its own Industry Innovation Awards program.

Most people know innovation when they see it. But how do you make it happen?

To be sure, definitions for innovation abound. Depending on whom you ask, innovation is life-altering, process changing, disruptive, sustainable, earth-shattering, or breathtaking. Google Engineering Director Alan Warren says innovation is about "taking a set of tools or capabilities and coming up with a new way of putting them together that is going to provide value for the users." Dean Kamen argues, "it's not clever widgets and inventions, but it is the wheel, fire, and moveable type." An innovative technology, Kamen says, "is something so profound that it changes the way people live, work, or play."

Regardless of how it's defined, most people know innovation when they see it, and few would disagree with the choice of Tim Berners-Lee or Shuji Nakamura as world-class innovators.

What seems harder to agree on than what defines innovation is what enables it to happen. Are certain conditions necessary to create an environment that breeds innovation? Is innovation most reliant on brilliant people, plentiful resources, or an ideal work culture? Is it about having the perfect combination of those factors, or something else entirely? And how do some companies, such as Google or DEKA, manage to generate one life-altering tool or technology after another?

We asked the leaders of those and three other organizations to tell us what they believe is the key to scientific innovation in industry. We didn't get the same answer twice.

Realize the customer's dream

Raised by a painter-poet mother and an engineer father, NYAS member Sophie Vandebroek might seem to have been groomed to be an innovative scientist. But her definition of innovation isn't so heavy on free-thinking and creativity. "You innovate when you make a significant difference to the customers—when they benefit from the product or service that you provide," says the Chief Technology Officer for Xerox.

Over the company's lifespan, Xerox has been issued more than 55,000 patents worldwide and continues to win more than 10 every week. But inventing is just half of the innovation equation, according to Vandebroek, who is also president of the Xerox Innovation Group. Her formula? Innovation = invention + entrepreneurship.

An invention can be cool, but it might not change the business process, make a significant impact, improve efficiency, or create new markets, Vandebroek says. "Innovation is a practical and successful application of a breakthrough invention," she explains, adding that, at Xerox, "the way we innovate starts and ends with the customer."

To really grasp Xerox customers' needs and address their "pain points," Vandebroek instituted a practice by which Xerox researchers host "dreaming sessions" with about 2000 customers each year. For instance, when Xerox acquired the litigation document management company Amici in 2006, Xerox staff sought out meetings with potential customers of its products—the chief information officers of several top law firms. Amici offered software to enable lawyers to automatically pull data for trial from among reams of documents containing millions of pieces of evidence. But in Vandebroek's conversations with CIOs, she discovered that legal professionals need to sift through evidence by hand to decide if it is relevant to a case or if it needs to be kept secure—a tedious and error-prone process. "It was a pain point," Vandebroek says, but to automate the process and eliminate human intervention was no solution.

Instead, Xerox developed smart document software that used machine learning and linguistics to process and analyze content for attorneys, find facts in documents, and filter private information. Vandebroek says the dreaming sessions enabled her staff to more effectively apply their expertise to the customers' problems.

In another example of how dreaming sessions contribute to innovation, Vandebroek says a team of anthropologists from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center spent six months conducting on-site observations of some of the company's large enterprise customers. They noticed that nearly 45 percent of what people print winds up in the recycling bin within 24 hours—an expensive and environmentally unsound habit. Meanwhile, at a Xerox research facility in Canada, materials scientists and chemists had developed a temporary printing system that could make type disappear from a page 24 hours after being printed.

Vandebroek says going on site to experience the customers' operation is a key to innovation. "If I simply ask my customers what they want, they might not be familiar with the state-of-the-art that allows you to do such things." She adds, "As Henry Ford said, 'If I gave my customers what they wanted, it would have been a faster horse.'"

Harness the wisdom of crowds

In a world where competition is global and corporations can be as populous as small cities, it's too risky to rely on a few people to come up with all your good ideas, says Mark Turrell, CEO of Imaginatik, a Boston and Winchester, UK-based company that makes enterprise software for collaborative innovation and idea management. Problems can better be solved when you tap into the brains of tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people, he says.

"Let's say you ask for input from 500 people. Even if 400 can't be bothered to respond, 100 participate. Of those, 30 will have 38 ideas, of which 10 to 15 percent will be good," says Turrell. "Because you are working at volume, you're bound to get one brilliant answer. Always."

Many great ideas start at the grassroots, but good leadership is also critical.

While working on a PhD in the Information Management Department of Cass Business School in London, Turrell studied critical mass and diffusion theory of collaborative technologies, how they spread through organizations, and how people adopt and use them. Based on what he learned, Turrell created a methodology and Web-based software for collaborative problem solving that has been used more than 4000 times to address a variety of problems.

Hewlett-Packard employed his system as a brainstorming device to solicit ideas for meaningful projects the company could undertake as part of an Earth Day celebration. And Pfizer used it to tap into its own institutional wisdom: To expand its drug pipeline, the pharma wanted to dig up compounds that the company once had under development but did not finish developing for some business reason, such as lack of interest in a certain drug market. The company used Imaginatik software to engage the help of 15,000 employees in finding an existing drug ready for phase 3. Compounds that had made it that far along in the pipeline, Pfizer reasoned, have approximately $100 million net present value. They found one within a week.

Turrell says there are tricks that can encourage people to use a collaborative system. A narrow focus and a short time frame will get 30 times better participation than any long-term program, he says. People are always busy, and they procrastinate, he explains, so it's important to encourage them to do today what they'd prefer to put off until tomorrow. Plus, people are more likely to come up with great ideas in response to a specific query than to a general invitation for suggestions. Asking, "How can we reduce bureaucracy or reduce our energy consumption?" prompts more useful and creative responses than just requesting suggestions on how to improve company performance.

Many of the great ideas that became some of the most successful products, or even whole industries, were developed at the grassroots level, Turrell points out. But leadership—to set goals and identify and provide support for the best ideas—is also critical. Turrell's favorite recipe for promoting innovation? "Openness to using the thousand eyes, ears, and brains everywhere, but at the same time having a focus and direction."

Hire the best, then get out of their way

Google Engineering Director Alan Warren, whose employer is the poster child for 21st century innovation, says it has become so by hiring the right people and fostering a culture where they thrive.

Recent innovations out of Google's New York City office, such as Google Spreadsheets, which transformed a traditionally desktop-bound application into a collaborative workspace, are the products of the company's hands-off approach to management.

"You can't make someone an innovator if they don't have a curiosity and desire to make things better, to do something new and useful. And you can't put someone like that in the wrong environment and expect good things to pop out," Warren says.

Google seeks new hires with what Warren calls "serious horsepower"—people who are not just super smart, but who also have a creative bent. "We ask ourselves, 'Has a candidate just taken a problem that's been handed to them by a thesis advisor and worked their way through it, or have they taken [a problem], spun it out this way, figured out how it applies to that, and then come up with this over here?' We look for that kind of spark," he says.

Another question Warren asks a hiring committee to consider is: "Would you like this person sitting in the cube next to you and working on your project with you?"

"We won't bring someone in just because of horsepower if we don't think they'll add to the environment," he says. He wants people who are happy to let others bounce ideas off of them and who will participate in offsite team-building outings such as the recent company-wide ski trip.

That's because Google developers usually attack projects in small teams. "The natural number that our developers tend to organically subdivide into is three," he says, adding that it's "a group size that minimizes the overhead from over-organizing and coordinating."

The Google philosophy also holds that an overly hierarchical management structure can obstruct innovation. Micromanagement is strongly discouraged. As a manager, Warren believes his job is to bring smart people together then take a step back. "I don't manage or direct in the traditional sense," he says. "My job is to help communicate to employees what the company priorities are, what I see as the important challenges and needs out there, and to give them some ideas and directions to go in."

But it is the job of the engineers to figure out just what needs to get done, he explains. "I manage them by reviewing what they are planning to do, rather than by figuring out what they should do and telling them to do it."

Celebrate failure, and move on fast

Perhaps best known for his electric "human transporter," the Segway, inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen holds 400 patents and is responsible for creating life-transforming technologies such as the mobile peritoneal dialysis machine (140 million shipped), the iBOT Mobility System—which enables people typically confined to a wheelchair to maneuver stairs and rough terrain, reach high shelves, and greet a standing person at eye-level—and, still under development, a robotic prosthetic arm, designed especially for amputee soldiers returning from Iraq.

Kamen says he fosters innovation at his Manchester, NH, company, DEKA Research & Development, by embracing failure. "In most companies the penalty for failure is substantially disproportionate to the reward for success, which causes rational people to be risk averse," Kamen says. "DEKA is a place that embraces change and a place that celebrates failure in a weird way."

When an idea doesn't pan out, Kamen says it's important to view the project, not the person or the company, as the failure. "Let it fail quickly, learn, recover, laugh, and move on," he says. "At the end of any day I'd like to see guys running around yelling 'Eureka!' or else I'd like to see smoke and a ball of flames. Spectacular death is better than the warm death of mediocrity."

Asked whether brilliant people, the right resources, or a strong culture is most important to an innovative workplace, Kamen responds, "You need the right people, resources, and culture. And mostly you need to be able to work really hard." Modern culture suggests that life is about instant gratification, Kamen complains. "The jingles kids see say, 'Life is short. Play hard.' My motto is 'Life is short. Work hard.' I don't think there's a shortcut to innovation," says the man who claims to have never had a job or collected a paycheck in his life.

Kamen also suggests that a small company like DEKA, with about 200 employees, is better suited to innovate than behemoths such as Xerox or Google. "Big organizations are good at doing certain things that are important for the world to have, like consistency and quality. Good management is about consistency and never being surprised. But that's contrary to what innovation is," he says.

So, what is innovation? "People are comfortable with the way things are," Kamen explains. "Innovation is therefore so rare it only occurs when some idea or technology is so profoundly better than what existed before that people are willing to change."

How does he know when DEKA has produced something that meets his definition of innovative? "When you deliver the first one that actually works—something that you think is a big idea and you show it to someone and their deep analytic response is, 'Wow!' Then you know you're on to something."

If you build it, they will come and be brilliant

NYAS member Timothy Lance believes that great infrastructure is the key to enabling scientific innovation. Scientists around New York State who are relying on his organization's vast computing network are the proof of his point.

"Suppose you've got a computational model that has something to do with protein folding," begins Lance, president and chairman of the board of NYSERNet, a private not-for-profit corporation that has delivered state-of-the-art Internet services to New York State's research and education community for more than 20 years.

Now, he says, "Suppose you've got a very good lab scientist who knows a lot about proteins and the way they behave. Once upon a time he might have said, 'To run the model is going to take a week and then it will take another two days to download the results.'"

But, Lance asks, what if you put this incredibly fast computer and network at his disposal so that the model can be run in two seconds? "He might see the results and say 'That's interesting, but hey I wonder, what if x is different? Let's tweak this and see what happens.' [The experiment] is quantitatively different but it's also qualitatively different because it's so quick that you've got this brilliant mind able to turn multiple things over and come up with an idea."

Giving researchers access to computing power lets them tackle complex problems.

Founded in 1985 by a consortium of institutions grappling with lack of access to high-performance computing, NYSERNet counts among its members New York State's leading universities, colleges, museums, healthcare facilities, primary and secondary schools, and research institutions. In 1987, NYSERNet deployed a regional Internet Protocol network—the first use of the technology outside the U.S. Department of Defense, and the first statewide implementation.

In the days before the public Internet, scientists couldn't quickly share data or exchange ideas, Lance notes. And before NYSERNet, research institutions paid for dialup so their investigators could call in to the nearest supercomputing center. By providing them with access to the computational and connectivity tools they need, NYSERNet has advanced research and educational initiatives, and thereby innovation, in New York State.

Over the past three years, in order to end its dependence on carrier-provided circuits, NYSERNet has deployed or acquired a vast network of fiber optic cable—over 1,500 miles of fiber in New York City. When the Large Hadron Collider comes online in Switzerland this year, all data flowing from it to the Americas will be routed through NYSERNet's primary collocation site at 32 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, Lance says.

"Now the networks are so powerful that we can look at harder problems and bigger datasets, bigger transfers, and more computational cycles," says Lance. "Of course, there can be innovation by having breathtaking ideas that don't require any computers and I sometimes kid around that what we're doing with these supercomputers is enabling ordinary men to do what Gauss would do in his head overnight. But in fact, to visualize some problems requires so much data or computation or tools that the infrastructure becomes an absolutely critical tool for getting an idea of what's going on."