Fast Company

Fast Talk: Mother (and Fathers) of Invention

How do new products happen? We asked some inventive folks about coming up with ideas and seeing them through to the marketplace.

Jay Sorensen

Founder Java Jacket
Portland, Oregon

Don't underestimate the value of luck. I used to go to one of the first gourmet coffee bars in Portland. You could pull right up to the drive-through, and they would hand you coffee in a paper cup with a napkin around it. This was 1991. One morning, I spilled the coffee in my lap. I didn't get burned badly, but I thought, Maybe there's a better way of doing this.

I don't think of myself as an inventor. But at the time, I was in real estate and on the verge of going broke. So I started playing around with paper. I saw some embossed paper on a paper towel, talked to some paper converters, and sat down at my kitchen table and started wrapping insulated sleeves made from waffle-textured chipboard around paper cups.

Starbucks was double-cupping then. I knew coffee wasn't a fad, and I was convinced that Starbucks was going to be the player. We negotiated for nine months, and I was willing to give them an exclusive deal, but there were some demands that I didn't want to meet. Now, would I like to have had the Starbucks account? Yeah, sure. But I've come to realize that I would have been so tied to them, it's almost a blessing we didn't get it.

So early on, we went directly to local coffee shops. Today, our big customers are either distributors or national accounts such as Borders and Nordstrom. But the coffee shops were key to adoption. Occasionally, I'd get calls from shop owners who were upset because if they put the jacket on the cup one day and then didn't the next, customers would get mad. My response: You're spending four cents to make your customers happy. That's the other thing you can't underestimate.

Suna Polat

Technology entrepreneur, Baby Care and Feminine Care
Procter & Gamble
Cincinnati, Ohio

More than two years ago, A.G. Lafley, our CEO, issued a challenge to have 50% of the company's innovations come from external sources. In the past, we pretty much had a "do it ourselves" culture. But to really innovate better, faster, cheaper, we had to move toward a more open model of innovation. It's my job--along with 50 or so other employees with the same position--to find ideas.

I think a lot about diapers. Baby Stages of Development launched in 2002, and it's based on the basic consumer insight that the needs of mom and baby change as the baby grows. Our diapers are designed according to those stages, from newborn to toddler. The other challenge was to create a breathable material for diapers. We started thinking about ways to come up with that for the outside film of the diaper. It was an engineering contradiction: a material that allows water vapor molecules to go through but not liquid. We ended up collaborating with a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Back in 1990, Procter & Gamble was looking for a way to make diapers cheaper. We found the expertise at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the people who work on nuclear bombs. So in a way, we've always looked to the outside for ideas. Now it's just official.

Bruce Mau

Bruce Mau Design Inc.
Design Studio
Toronto, Ontario

To invent anything, you have to be removed from the world. In order to have the capacity, the liberty, to imagine something better, you need to step outside of it for a while.

My advice is to encourage invention and ideas, and then edit. It's about proliferation and promiscuity on the one hand--and then later, rigorous, tough-minded editing. Dean Kamen, the inventor, calls the process "kissing frogs." You might make 100 things and turn one of them into a prince.

What's truly sane about that approach is that the frog that you make today doesn't have to be beautiful. There's no need to get hung up on a "good idea." Later on, the process of choosing--making sure a good idea doesn't get lost--becomes largely intuitive. In my experience, it has to be.

But product invention isn't just about the product. It's also about the relationship, the flow, the information that surrounds that product. If you say that the actual object is the thing, then you're missing the point of what it means to invent in today's world.

It's true that to think about a new product, you first have to consider it on its own. But not long after, you have to force yourself to do a mental flip and understand that it's really not discrete at all. For example, car manufacturers don't want to sell you a car. They want to sell you 10 cars. And so, they're going to sell you the relationship, the communication, the experience of that car. The car, the product, is part of a bigger flow. The real challenge for an inventor is to understand how it fits into the larger context.

Mark Stefik

Research fellow and manager,
Information Sciences and Technologies Laboratory
Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)
Palo Alto, California

We live and work in what I call an "innovation ecology," a collection of people and organizations whose joint contributions make breakthroughs possible. It includes universities, government funders, venture capitalists, designers, marketing departments, and corporate labs. The challenge is to bring ideas together.

What not to do: Fill a room with people from a single discipline. Or get a bunch of people from many different disciplines, and throw them all together. Either everyone has the same background, so it's hard to come up with big, surprising ideas, or people are so different they can't understand one another.

Something magical happens when you bring together a group of people from different disciplines with a common purpose. It's a middle zone, the breakthrough zone. The idea is to start a team on a problem--a hard problem, to keep people motivated. When there's an obstacle, instead of dodging it, bring in another point of view: an electrical engineer, a user interface expert, a sociologist, whatever spin on the market is needed. Give people new eyeglasses to cross-pollinate ideas.

For every invention, there are two fundamental questions: What is possible and what is needed? The back-and-forth is the dance of the two questions. You have to bring together people who are familiar enough with both sides of the equation long enough to understand one another and explore the problem together. For people who love invention, that's where the action is.

We're now working with corporate sponsors to explore the strategic challenges and technological directions they're interested in. Teams change as the scope of the problem and possibilities become evident. The teams are small. Early on, they have to be small enough--three to six people--to run fast and break some rules.

But they are teams. There are cute stories about a lone inventor of some little thing--one of those "as seen on TV" gadgets--and that's really fun and wonderful. That's not the kind of breakthrough I'm talking about. This is about making breakthroughs a way of life.

David M. Lederman

Chairman and CEO, Abiomed
Danvers, Massachusetts

It's my mission to build artificial implantable hearts. When I began thinking about the idea more than 30 years ago, the country had the will to achieve things that the world said were not achievable. A man had just landed on the moon. I wanted to do something important and life changing.

There were no illusions that this was going to be quick. No other medical device that has entered clinical practice has had such a long development phase. Some necessary technologies did not exist when we started. We did not have batteries with enough energy to power a mechanical heart so patients could walk around freely. In 1977, we estimated it would take 20 years before the technologies we needed would converge. And we were right.

Along the way, we've created lesser technologies. Our team developed an intra-aortic balloon pump, an artificial heart valve, and a cardiac-assist system which has been used by millions of patients. Like landing on the moon, which led to the development of bar-coding, building an artificial implantable heart is the original mission, but it's not the only mission. Whatever the invention, you have to be open and ready for potential by-products.

You also have to be prepared for setbacks. The first attempt is seldom successful. It's an indication of what you need to do so that the second attempt is better. There's no straight path. We've had to return to fundamentals and work very hard to keep up with scientific advances. Some of us spent seven years simply learning how blood clots.

Today, the AbioCor has been implanted in 11 patients. In a sense, we have landed on the moon. We set out to provide two months of reasonable life to a patient who had less than a month to live. One man survived for a record 17 months before his death. Frankly, we didn't expect that kind of success so soon. We also didn't anticipate the higher expectations that would emerge with that success. That's been the biggest challenge.

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