had the great privilege of participating in an Innovation panel at
Sensors Expo in Chicago on June 11, 2008. The panel of experts included
Audley Brown, director of advanced propulsion system controls for GM’s
PowerTrain group, Dr. Nat Sims from Mass General, who runs SimsLab for
anesthesia and critical care, Jon Frederickson from Innocentive who
recruits “seeker” organizations to engage in open innovation, and
myself. The panel was assembled and beautifully facilitated by John
Hanks, vice president, data acquisition and control, of National
The panel was fine. But we had the most fun swapping stories and views over dinner the night before. The “formal” discussion in front of the audience didn’t quite capture all the richness of our behind the scenes conversations. I wish there were a way to capture the real deal—the real animated conversations among practitioners—not try to re-create a proxy of it on stage.
Here are some of the themes I noticed in our on- and off-stage dialogs:
- Cross-Industry Idea Transfer is at the Heart of many Innovations
- Platform + Ecosystem + Business Model + Content = Success
- Challenge-based Approach Is Popular and Successful
- Framing the Question Correctly
Cross-Industry Idea Transfer Is at the Heart of Many Innovations
Nat Sims told the story of how he came up with the idea for an intelligent, automated approach to dispensing anesthesia (and, later, other medicines) by using a programmable controller with algorithms based on a database of locally-physician-created, hospital approved, and up-to-date application instructions.
As an amateur pilot in the 1980’s, Nat loved his early LORAN navigation
system (pre-GPS) which came with an updatable database of electronic
instructions for how to approach each airfield as well as all the
pre-programmed waypoints. He could also add his own waypoints and
instructions. As a practicing cardiac anesthesiologist, he wanted to
take human error out of the complexity of dynamically creating formulas
to control all of patients’ bodily functions during an operation in
which the patient’s body needs to change state multiple times. Why not
apply the LORAN approach to mixing and dispensing medicines? Automate
the process, remove human error, and supplement the standardized data
with the “local knowledge” of expert practitioners. Nat and his
colleagues (doctors, head of pharmacy, head of nursing, etc.) at Mass
General partnered with medical device manufacturers to bring that
innovation into practice. Now the royalties from the $700 million a
year business help fund the Sims Lab, where Nat and his colleagues
continue their customer-led innovation projects.
Jon Frederickson described the remarkable success of the Innocentive marketplace in helping companies get solutions to problems that have them stumped by posting their challenges on the Innocentive network for expert volunteers to solve. Companies (seekers) use Innocentive’s global solver network 0f 145,000 experts from 175 countries in 40 different industries to tackle really hard problems. “It’s often the last 5 percent of the execution of a great idea you just can’t figure out on your own,” John explained.
The Innocentive network has addressed 700 hard problems to-date. 40 percent of those have been solved. That’s a pretty good hit rate! The most dramatic finding is that the majority (70 percent) of the winning solutions came from solvers outside the seeker company’s discipline or domain of expertise. For example, a cement specialist came up with a solution for dealing with oil spills. Often the solutions aren’t brand new approaches, but proven solutions that have never been applied and aren’t known in your discipline.
Audley Brown described the cross-disciplinary make-up of the team that developed GM’s OnStar technology which combines sensors, GPS, content, and customer service to deliver peace of mind and convenience to customers. Of course, GM already had hundreds of sensors in every car, but enabling them to provide valuable services to the driver was the real breakthrough.
Platform + Ecosystem + Business Model + Content = Success
John Hanks introduced the topic of “Platform Innovation.” “Is the value now in the design of a larger strategy—that involves innovation with the combined elements of product design, partners, content, and distribution?” He used the iPod as an example. Steve Jobs took a behavior that was already underway—downloading music tracks on to MP3 players and wrapped a slick user interface and business model around it. Steve Jobs came up with a business model that appealed to customers and was acceptable to content providers—$.99 per track—as well as a subsequent platform for customer-created content which spawned the podcast revolution. Both LEGO and National Instruments created ecosystems around their respective products (the original LEGO Mindstorms and the original LabView virtual instrumentation software) and then combined those two ecosystems for Mindstorms NXT with a good dose of customer-led innovation thrown in.
Just about every innovation we could think of includes all of these elements: a platform for continuous innovation, a vibrant ecosystem of practitioners, partners, distributors, and suppliers all aligned around common outcomes, with win/win business models and the opportunity to evolve and learn over time. Real-time feedback and continuous learning is a core capability for that ecosystem.
Content is an important part of a successful innovation platform. Nat Sims described the ways in which physicians contribute locally specialized knowledge about what works best in each context when it comes to delivering medications. The customer-contributed content that is agreed upon by the experts in each healthcare institution and quality controlled by the pharmacist is part of the real secret sauce of the dosage delivery algorithms that are now widely used in hospitals. Audley Brown commented that content is a huge part of the success of GM’s OnStar platform. We all agreed that customer-created, context-specific content is often an important ingredient for successful adoption and use of many of today’s platforms.
The next step around content, we agreed, has to do with providing visibility to the patterns of learning, behavior, and knowledge that arise from practice. Ideally, the entire ecosystem benefits from sharing the learning and the patterns.
Challenge-Based Approach Is Often Successful
Innocentive uses a challenge-based model to foster innovation. Solvers compete for monetary prizes. But what they really care about is the gratification of having solved a difficult problem.
Audley Brown talked about the excitement and inspiration of working with university teams who compete in GM’s design challenges. The current challenge he described is the EcoCar Challenge that is a joint project between GM and the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s a four-year challenge with cross-disciplinary teams from 16 North American Universities competing to design and develop a working car that has high fuel economy and low CO2 emissions.
We also talked about the FIRST robotics competitions and the way in which they are structured to maximize coopetition and continuous learning, by combining and recombining teams in a series of trials. Woody Flowers and Dean Kamen carefully design each robotics challenge so that kids can apply their creativity to solving hard problems, with no known or “right” answers, in a short timeframe, with too few resources (time, money) at their disposal. This helps gets the creative juices flowing and provides real world continuous feedback.
Framing the Question Correctly
A lot of the art of innovation, the panel members agreed, has to do with the way in which the desired outcomes are framed. A lot of time the constraints that keep you stuck come from assumptions you’re making about business models, regulatory issues, and/or what’s possible. That’s one reason why part of the value add that Innocentive provides is to helps its seeker reframe their questions to be more open-ended and more outcome-based.
Want to Participate? Here’s a challenge YOU may be able to solve. Jon Frederickson exhorted audience members to tackle the ChangeNow4Health challenge to help improve healthcare in the U.S. They want your best ideas in two pages. The prize is $10,000.