In today’s global economy, there is a constant drumbeat to come up with something “new.” But you don’t need to invent something entirely new to be successful. Invention is wonderful, but you can be very successful if you focus on innovating on something that already exists rather than inventing something entirely new.
What is important here is to separate invention and innovation. Take a look at Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone, for example. Apple took a stagnant product category – the mobile phone – and completely rethought how it could be used. They took an existing product category and existing technologies, but still somehow reshaped modern society. Apple’s innovations in design and user interface sparked a tech revolution.
Innovation is really what drives economic growth. This is a theory of Joseph Schumpeter, who was a professor at Harvard University. Schumpeter was one of the 20th century’s major economists. He said that innovation was the product of new combinations, and he proposed five combination patterns: 1) the production of a new good; 2) the introduction of a new method of production; 3) the development of a new market; 4) the acquisition of a new source of supply of raw materials; and 5) the emergence of a new organization of any industry. The advent of the Internet has created yet another platform for new services to be created through the combination of new things in complex ways.
In the end, innovation does not need to mean inventions like induced pluripotent stem cells or anything else. The emergence of new discoveries is absolutely a good thing, but even without inventions, a country or company can still come out ahead. After all, Japan didn’t invent the car or the TV, but it certainly innovated on them and built world-leading companies and economies.
What do you think are some of the most important innovations this century?
With the aid of the film, Apollo 13, let’s briefly consider the concept of failure and its role in innovation, problem solving and decision-making.
The Apollo 13 movie documents the heroic efforts of the NASA flight team in successfully returning their crew of three astronauts to earth in their ill-fated, aborted, mission to land on the moon. There’s a compelling scene where the flight engineers discuss the crippled space craft’s desperate power situation that concludes with Flight Director Gene Kranz’s (portrayed by Ed Harris as pictured at left) determined declaration:
Been hearin’ complaints ‘n’ controversy about Techweek this year. People gripe so you figure there’s gotta be a good reason, right? Yeah, I hear you. Yer sayin’, where there’s smoke there’s fire. But all them critics completely miss THE HIDDEN ROOM that you and me stumple upon—the hidden room that makes this thing truly amazing. Now the dust is settled, lemme take you on a tour o’ what I seen. Continue reading →
Loop Lonagan here. I’m at a place where my natural greed ‘n’ avarice can do some good fer dis poor worn-out world. This is the Chicago CleanTech Competition—what you might call a race between high-tech global janitorial services. Ten distinguished judges will pick the best o’ da best—companies that’re really doin’ somethin’ to deal with the mess we’re makin’ outa our little corner o’ God’s creation. What we got here is da last ten finalists in our great city and tonight that gets cut down to five.
Every one o’ these companies is a specialist with a different slant on how to get the job done. You know as well as I do—the only company that succeeds in this world is the one that makes good business sense. But are those the ones that’ll win? Probably not. But we’ll see.
The MC makes sure we know today is Earth Day, which gets a shrug all around. Then he explains how the winners move on to the big international GCCA event and compete with companies from Europe ‘n’ Asia. You heard all about that organization, right? If you didn’t, see the link and the video at da bottom. I got no time to explain.
A Strange Encounter
Lemme give you summa da local color. Things is movin’ along real nice when I hear this harsh voice all the way from the other side o’ the room. He’s yellin’ at an elderly gentleman for nodding off during the meeting. Then he turns his foghorn on me: “Hey Lonagan, are you going to be writing this up? Because I’m going to call you every hour on the hour till you do!”
Sheesh, I ain’t kiddin’. The guy blares that out right in the middle o’ da meeting in fronta all these gentle souls. I’m wonderin’ if any of them clean tech folks ever ran into anybody like Rong Mayhem before.
I know that Rong singled me out ‘cause of a simple misunderstanding. He thinks I’m some kinda reporter. Well, this ain’t no newspaper and nobody sticks me with no deadline. I’m lookin’ for companies to invest in. So’s I keep takin’ notes.
Then he howls. “Lonagan, what the hell are you doing?”
This time I answer. “Just writin’ down what you say, Rong.”
But he’s got a come-back to that: “You know what you are? You’re a legend in your own mind!” Then he repeats it a couple times.
After that, things quiet down for a while. And I’m smiling to myself, thinking about the poor MC tryin’ to control the meeting. So I glance over the program and get a jolt. Outa these ten companies, I see two graduates from Northwestern University’s Impact Engine. Lemme tell you about one o’ them:
George Page is the founder of Portapure and he’s da keynote speaker tonight. He’s also one o’ da judges, so maybe things’ll work out all right after all. He’s a chemical engineer that worked in Chicago water projects so he’s a practical guy. And he’s on a mission. He wants to make clean water available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. To do that, he makes water filtration affordable for the developing world.
Portapure won this event last year and ended up among the top 30 in the world. I first seen him at BNC Venture Capital when he invented a pocket size water purifier. I’ll tell you about that one first:
Picture this: Say yer goin’ into the jungles of Haiti to do disaster relief. Yer gonna be
there for weeks and the water is mostly muddy streams and swamps. This is da 3rd World. There ain’t no EPA out there to slap people with fines fer makin’ a mess. Still, you gotta get yer butt out there no matter what the conditions. So whaddaya do? Pack in lotsa fresh water, right? Think again. Got any idea how many pounds a few gallons o’ water weighs? It’s impossible to lug all that with you. Airdrop it, maybe? Not a practical solution.
As it turns out, you don’t even need to carry a canteen. Instead, you take along a little pocket-size device called PocketPure. It weighs next to nothin’. Any time you get thirsty, you stop at a convenient swamp and make yerself some clean drinking water—one cup at a time. You can stay in the field as long as you want ‘n’ you never run outa water.
Up till now, all anybody had was water purification tablets. Those take half an hour to work and you still gotta filter out the dirt somehow. But technology moves forward and you might as well take advantage of it. As you might’ve guessed, Portapure is sellin’ these things to NGOs by the boxful.
Drinking water is in short supply across the world. Lotsa people in all kindsa places die of E. coli and such. Kids even. That brings me to Portapure’s next product:
This one’s on a bigger scale. It’s a three-phase filter with a 5-gallon capacity—just right for yer typical grass hut. Hey—people in the developing world want clean water for their families, too.
This thing filters both bacteria and viruses outa real filthy water. I’m talking real nasty critters like cholera, typhoid, amoebic dysentery, E. coli, coliform bacteria, cryptosporidium, streptococcus, salmonella, giardia, and of course, yer ordinary dirt ‘n’ sediment—it’s enough t’ make yer flesh crawl. This device filters out 99.99% o’ that muck—the definition of clean water according to the World Health Organization. And the filter lasts for maybe 10,000 gallons! This thing was tested in an NSF certified lab and reduced the E. coli count from 5490 to less than 1.
This keeps getting better. He sells these things to NGOs, but there’s another angle. Clean water’s at a real premium. It’s like liquid gold in some places. And folks livin’ there wanna make a living just like anybody else. That gives Portapure a natural distribution network and a sustainable solution that pays for itself. At the same time, they’re putting people to work and boosting the economy in these far-flung places.
This company’s got its share of ‘em:
Impact Engine graduate
GCCA Global Top 30 company
Chicago Innovation Awards 2011 Up & Comer
Office of the Treasurer Small 2012 Business Plan finalist
Tech Cocktail 2011 Finalist
Here’s a good video on Portapure:
I wanna tell you ‘bout the other companies and who won. But I ain’t got room to do it justice here, so I’ll be back with more.
Images and video courtesy Portapure, CCEA, GCCA, Impact Engine, and AP.
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