Archive for the ‘Product Innovation’ Category

How an African Boy Built a Windmill From Scratch to Generate Electricity to Read, and Why a Return to Hands-On Product Innovation and Development Might Lead to Recovery in the US

By GSS on December 2, 2009 | Category: Product Innovation | 1 Comment

The video above is the story of William Kamwamba, a young man born in Malawi, one of Africa's poorest nations, who pieced together a windmill from scrap parts at the age of 14 (from Wired Magazine's Teen's DIY Energy Hacking Gives African Village New Hope).  Despite being described as a local kid gone crazy, William used a picture of a windmill on a textbook cover, to successfully complete a windmill and power his house with electricity so he could read after dark.  This soon led to using the device to pump water for irrigation, and started William down a path that would not only change his life, but help lift those around him up to better living conditions.  

Stories like this are inspirational to say the least, but also allude to what we may find taking place in the United States right now.  Mr. Kamwamba's story is evidence of what can take place when resources which could be deemed extremely minimal, at best, are innovatively pieced together in ways previously unseen, to create products and technologies that solve the most basic of problems and usher in waves of new possibilities.  The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article "Tinkering Makes a Comeback Amid Crisis", which notes the recent surge in hands-on building, prototyping, crafting, and general making of things taking place in the United States over the last few years:

Engineering schools across the country report students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work that hasn't been seen in years. Workshops for people to share tools and ideas — called "hackerspaces" — are popping up all over the country; there are 124 hackerspaces in the U.S., according to a member-run group that keeps track, up from a handful at the start of last year. SparkFun Electronics Inc., which sells electronic parts to tinkerers, expects sales of about $10 million this year, up from $6 million in 2008. "Make" magazine, with articles on building items such as solar hot tubs and autopilots for robots, has grown from 22,000 subscribers in 2005 to more than 100,000 now. Its annual "Maker Faire" in San Mateo, Calif., attracted 75,000 people this year.

"We've had this merging of DIY [do it yourself] with technology," says Bre Pettis, co-founder of NYC Resistor, one of the first hackerspaces, in Brooklyn. "I'm calling it Industrial Revolution 2." 

The resources available for making things are becoming cheaper and increasingly more available to the common tinkerer (product developer?  Inventor?).  The WSJ article notes that university undergraduates are now gaining access to advanced machinery previously only available to senior researchers, and new businesses like Techshop:

TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., for example, is a for-profit workshop and operates like a gym, except that the members who pay $100 a month are milling iron rather than pumping it.

Founder Jim Newton tallied a list of all the tools he could imagine needing. Now TechShop, opened in 2006, has $500,000 worth of lathes, laser cutters and other equipment.

There are 600 members at TechShop's original location, up from 300 a year ago, and it has opened workshops in Durham, N.C., and Beaverton, Ore. Projects under way include a liquid-cooling device for computer servers and an electric two-wheeled car.

Nobel Prize winning economists have demonstrated that approximately half of economic growth in the U.S. could be attributed to innovation–innovation born out of the kind of "tinkering" and product development that takes place at places like Techshop, or in the rural windmill fields of Malawi.  

 

The junk lying around you may actually be components for a future product or technology that will have a substantial impact.  All it takes is the imagination and drive of a guy like William.  I would wager that someone in the U.S. is tinkering right now with one of the next major innovations of the 21st century. That might be a dramatic, whimsical thought, but so is reading after dark because your hand-built windmill made of scrap is supplying you power.

Prototyping for Success (and Failure): The Value of the Prototype in Design, Development, and Sourcing

By GSS on November 18, 2009 | Category: Product Design,Product Development,Product Innovation | No Comments

I've recently been reading a bit from IDEO founder, Tim Brown, on design thinking and the importance of prototyping in IDEO's design culture.  IDEO is one of the leading product innovation and design companies in the world. I posted the above video because it quickly captures the reasoning behind why IDEO encourages utilizing prototypes extensively in the design process.  I love the question the video begins with: "How can somebody become great at failing cheaply and quickly?"  The concept of failing fast and failing cheaply is widely promoted by successful entrepreneurs and innovators as a way to reach a successful product or business model through innovation.  Devorah Klein (in the above video) and Eric Saperstein, of IDEO, gave a speech at the 2008 Nantucket Conference, Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs: Identifying New Markets and Developing the Winning Product or Service (h/t blogger Simeon Simneonov) which I thought gave a great snapshot of IDEO's process.  Some main points:

  • Focus on Desirability (As captured by Simeon: The core of the IDEO philosophy starts with a focus on desirability. Come up with something people want then figure out how to optimize the technical and business aspects of it.)
  • Get Inspiration:

    • Spent time with people, both current customers and people who you’d want to have as customers. Develop deep empathy. 
    • Imagine what the future could be. Do not constrain your thinking. 
    • Embrace failure. Failure is data. 
    • Build to think. The act of creation helps you see things in a different light. 
    • Build low-res prototypes. Paper is OK. Iterate quickly. Generate many options. Be passionate about your prototypes but evaluate them dispassionately. 
    • Build it yourself. It’s another way to get yourself to see things from a different perspective. 

In the successful product development projects and entrepreneurial ventures I've been involved with, executives and managers have always been extremely involved in the prototyping phases, often building the prototypes themselves.  If possible, build it on your kitchen table or in your workroom with whatever handy materials you can find.  By getting your hands dirty, you become fully acquainted with the ins-n-outs of your product.  Think of the early stages as play and allow your mind to roam freely.  

Understanding the emphasis on the iterative nature of this process is key.  Although it's fun to tell and hear stories of entrepreneurs having a dream one night about a product that went on to great sales success, the truth is that most successful product developers and entrepreneurs have a substantial amount of failure under their belt that we don't hear as much about.  Think: that old Michael Jordan commercial in which he talks about every game winning shot or free throw he missed, or Thomas Edison saying that he didn't mind failing over 100 times before he reached his successful lightbulb, because he knew that each failure brought him one step closer to success.  One is much more likely to develop a successful path to market by doing the hard, but fun, work of developing several iterations until something desirable and viable is reached.  

Referring back to my last post on developing empathy for those that might use your product, this goes for more than just listening to your users or potential users.  Involving your partners in the supply chain to foster collaborative innovation will help you develop a solution that accounts for the whole lifecycle of a product.  On the manufacturing side, through prototype iterations, one can discover and work to eliminate design elements that might cause snags in manufacturing and assembly.  

Thus, when it comes to the design and development of a product, although many see this as a linear process, it's important that valuable feedback later in the project–say, from a manufacturers point of view, can work it's way back into "earlier" points of the design process and change the design accordingly.  This is why it is important to fail cheaply in the beginning–because spending lots of money on something that is likely to change later in the process burns cash needlessly.  

Once the design begins to solidify somewhat, one might need to move towards more mechanical rapid prototyping processes to gain and share information more effectively.  This post on MindTribe's blog, a Silicon Valley engineering firm, does a great job of explaining some of the various forms of rapid prototyping, such as stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Polyjet, and Machining processes.  

From a sourcing perspective, the prototype is immensely helpful.  Not only will it spur feedback regarding the design from a manufacturers perspective, it is often critical in communicating an enormous amount of information on the product's look, function, and construction.  If a picture speaks a thousand words, a prototype speaks a million.  One is much more likely to arrive at accurate projections and quotations of cost in the sourcing process, when manufacturing vendors can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear what they are to be producing.  

If your product or business is not enjoying the success you would like to see, perhaps you are still just in the prototyping stage and x number of iterations away from success.

Developing Mass Market Products: The “Good Enough” Revolution

By GSS on September 2, 2009 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

Flip-cam

The FlipCam, by Pure Digital Technologies.  1 million units sold in the first year.  17% of the camcorder market in approximately 3 years.  Acquired by Cisco for $590mm.  Started by entrepreneurs Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein after a failed start-up attempt in the digital camera market.  A consumer product start-up's dream, no?  For such a simple product, what made FlipCam such a wild success?

Wired Magazine has written a fascinating article, The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine, on the concept of the "good enough" revolution.  The idea that industries as diverse as camcorders, law, music, the military, and healthcare to name a few, are experiencing a wave of change in the concept of user value.  It might be considered a return to a greater focus on user value, in the ongoing battle between features/quality for the sake of features/quality vs. features/quality for the sake of…the people who actually use the product.  Companies and products which have long built their competitive leads on continually outrunning the competition with the latest high-quality features and technological advances, are continually having their markets disrupted by low-cost, widely accessible, flexible, "good enough" products. 

The article is a great read for many reasons.  Start-ups developing user-centric, disruptive consumer products should be inspired by the success of products like FlipCam.  Being close to the customer and understanding holes in the market are areas start-ups can often outrun large companies.  Large company engineers developing cutting-edge, technologically based features for new products spend more time in the lab and at their desk than interacting with customers.  Not that the cutting edge technologies aren't important, they just generally aren't important to the mass market.  In the words of Wired magazine author, Robert Capps:

Brisk sales combined with a lack of speedy returns destroyed the
company's thin margins, and the camera failed. But the experience
taught Kaplan and Braunstein a lesson: Customers would sacrifice lots
of quality for a cheap, convenient device. To keep the price down, Pure
Digital had made significant trade-offs. It used inexpensive lenses and
other components and limited the number of image-processing chips. The
pictures were OK but not great. Yet Pure Digital sold 3 million cameras
anyway.

Kaplan and Braunstein also learned something important about camera
retailing in general. The market had long been split into two main
segments: point-and-shoots (including disposables) and single-lens
reflex cameras, which use interchangeable lenses and other high-end
accessories. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of cameras sold
then—as now—were the handy point-and-shoots; SLRs tended to attract
only serious hobbyists and professionals.

Oddly, though, there was no point-and-shoot analogue in video
cameras—and that's where the pair saw their next opportunity. Home
videocams were almost without exception expensive, complicated devices
loaded with features like image stabilization, night-vision mode, and
onboard color correction. And even with tools like Apple's iMovie, it
was a hassle to get footage off the cameras and onto a computer for
editing and sharing. In terms of complexity and price, the camcorder
market resembled the SLR market, but with no low-end alternative.
Kaplan and Braunstein suspected that there might be a place for a much
cheaper, simpler video camera. So they decided to make one.

There are ample development opportunities for consumer product start-ups like Pure Digital.  In categories where companies must justify massive R&D budgets that result in over-invented, featured-to-death, costly products that the average person doesn't find value in, there are opportunities for the consumer product start-up to tune into user needs and develop low-cost alternatives that offer users 80% of the value, with 20% of the features and cost. 

Developing and sourcing products like this is also easier, as a development team can often find existing components in the market, and working with a manufacturer in a country like China or India does not involve pushing them to source and manufacture technologies that are far beyond them.  The magic lies in learning from users the combination of features and costs that are good enough to meet their needs.  And that magic only requires eyes and ears.

Innovating Innovation: Old Metrics Failing to Capture New Curves?

By GSS on June 5, 2009 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

Time Mag Picked up a great blog post on A VC, Fred Wilson (highly regarded VC and principal of Union Square Ventures) about Steven Johnson's Time Magazine cover story on How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live.  Fred's exuberance for the article stems from the article's final few paragraphs.  In his words:

It's the finish of Steven's piece where he talks about "end user innovation" that is so brilliant. He makes this "larger point about modern innovation":

When we talk about innovation and global competitiveness, we tend to fall back on the easy metric of patents and Ph.D.s. It turns out the U.S. share of both has been in steady decline since peaking in the early '70s. (In 1970, more than 50% of the world's graduate degrees in science and engineering were issued by U.S. universities.) Since the mid-'80s, a long progression of doomsayers have warned that our declining market share in the patents-and-Ph.D.s business augurs dark times for American innovation. The specific threats have changed. It was the Japanese who would destroy us in the '80s; now it's China and India.

But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn't build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years.

That's the thing that gets me so excited to get up and get going every day. Technology has reached a point where anyone can get involved with innovation. Patents and degrees matter a lot less. Imagining something and then coding it up is what its all about these days.

We are engaged in what Eric von Hippel calls "end user innovation" and it is a fundamental shift in the way society innovates. The Twitter founders are a perfect example. They built a simple tool to share short messages and it has become something entirely different.

The tools we are creating are allowing a much greater population to participate in the innovation process.  Opensource.  Crowdsource.  All new terms that describe an interconnectedness and an intellectual leverage unprecedented in history.  This should make for much more rapid, powerful, and unpredictable sources of new growth.  Google came alive about 10 years ago, captured a space, and quickly rose to become a goliath.  But just as quickly as Google rose to predominance, another rival could come and beat them at their own game, invent a new model, change the rules of the game, or the playing field altogether. 

I very much agree with the point that those decrying the U.S.' falling stature as the center of world innovation, are pointing towards metrics that described previous generations' sources of and success in innovation.  PhD's and patents are no doubt important, but perhaps new metrics describing the interconnectedness of a society, or the mass, quality, and rate of information transferred between members of a society at any given point, will better describe innovation power.  Of course, because this new curve has only just begun, we're far from being able to fully understand it and thus, measure appropriately. 

Making Cool Products Out of Trash, Terracycle’s Product Development and Materials Sourcing Process

By GSS on April 22, 2009 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

Before the company Terracycle, the only thing that backpacks, laptop bags, and kites, had in common with Caprisun pouches, Oreo wrappers, and chips bags, is the kids that took them to school everyday.  Not anymore.  Terracycle is flipping this on its head, by creating products like backpacks, laptop bags, and kites out of the trash that we toss out everyday. 

Founded by Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer in 2001, Terracycle started by offering composted plant food, which eventually hit shelves in Home Depot in 2004.  Since then, the company is gaining steam and, according to Ecopreneurist (h/t for the story), is now exploring opportunties with Walmart and Office Max. 

The above video was taken from National Geographic's show, Garbage Moguls, on Terracycle.  Making trash, otherwise headed for the landfill, into a viable material for resuse in a new product, is perhaps closer to a Cradle to Cradle process than anything else I've seen in consumer products.  Through Terracycle's process, the product could be considered to be up-cycled, rather than downcycled (the actual process that occurs in most "recycling", in which a product is broken up into its material components and some or all of those components are reused, or downcycled, into a product that requires a lower quality grade of material). 

Although in embryonic stages at this point, could this be the next disruptor in the materials market?  It will be interesting to watch as Terracycle moves to transform the prototypes developed by their teams into mass-manufacturable products.  It's certainly a challenge that can be tackled by the creative minds driving innovations like this forward in the first place.  I'm ready to buy my Caprisun laptop bag and to start scouting out landfills for potential sourcing and manufacturing applications.

Terminator Isn’t as Distant as You Think

By GSS on April 30, 2008 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

Ok.  That might be a little far-fetched.  But this video depicting the capabilities of robotic technology made me stare in wonder (h/t Marc Andreeson).  The technologies coming down the pipeline in industries such as nanotech, biotech, cleantech, robotics, and so on, will eventually filter into the products we use on a daily basis.  The world of our grandchildren will surely be a greater departure from our reality than our’s was for our grandparents.

Is the Innovation Reaper Coming for You?!!!

By GSS on July 3, 2007 | Category: Product Innovation | 1 Comment

In_die
Innovate or die!  I still remember seeing this sprawled across the cover of an issue of Businessweek magazine in a bookstore in 2003.  I generally don’t remember magazine cover titles 3 months prior.  But this one is pretty scary, right?  After reading this title, I went right home and stared at a blank wall for an hour and muttered to myself about new products I could develop.  Thankfully, I’ve staved off the Innovation Reaper that Businessweek warns of, so far…   

Many folks have different ideas about how innovation takes place.  Generally, it’s perceived to be an "aha" moment or epiphany-like moment.  As if, one day three years ago, Steve Jobs was digging through his closet for his old Hari Krisna  shrouds, when a pile of old records, some photos of he and Wozniak playing freeze tag, and an old rotary phone fell off the shelves into one pile on his foot and he screamed in pain "Aye! …phone."   True story.

Guy Kawasaki recently interviewed Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation.  Berkun’s innovation resume includes working on the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft back in the 90′s, as well as writing the best-selling book, The Art of Project Management.  What I like about Berkun’s points regarding innovation, is the theme that innovation, like many other things, is generally the result of a string of small improvements and consistent effort.  In addition, innovation is not just a challenge of conceiving of things never thought of before, but it’s just as much a challenge of convincing others of the worth of your ideas or products. Edison knew both of these things.  Berkun explains:   

  1. Question: How long does it take in the real world—as opposed to the world of
    retroactive journalism—for an “epiphany” to occur?

    Answer: An epiphany is the tip of the creative iceberg, and
    all epiphanies are grounded in work. If you take any magic moment of
    discovery from history and wander
    backwards in time you’ll find dozens of smaller observations,
    inquiries,
    mistakes, and comedies that occured to make the epiphany possible. All
    the
    great inventors knew this—and typically they downplayed the magic
    moments.
    But we all love exciting stories—Newton getting hit by an apple or
    people
    with chocolate and peanut butter colliding in hallways—are just more
    fun to
    think about. A movie called “watch Einstein stare at his chalkboard for
    90
    minutes” wouldn’t go over well with most people.

  2. Question: Is progress towards innovation made in a straight line? For example,
    transistor to chip to personal computer to web to MySpace.

    Answer: Most people want history to explain how we got here, not to teach them how
    to change the future. To serve that end, popular histories are told in
    heroic, logical narratives: they made a transistor, which led to the chip,
    which create the possibility for the PC, and on it goes forever. But of
    course if you asked William Shockey (transistor) or Steve Wozniak (PC) how
    obvious their ideas and successes were, you’ll hear very different stories
    about chaos, uncertainty and feeling the odds were against them.

    If we
    believe things are uncertain for innovators in the present, we have to
    remember things were just as uncertain for people in the past. That’s a big
    goal of the book: to use amazing tales of innovation history as tools for
    those trying to do it now.

  3. Question: Are innovators born or made?

    Answer: Both. Take Mozart. Yes, he had an amazing capacity
    for musical composition, but he also was born in a country at the
    center of the music world, had a
    father who was a music teacher, and was forced to practice for hours
    every
    day before he started the equivalent of kindergarten. I researched the
    history of many geniuses and creators and always find a wide range of
    factors, some under their control and some not, that made their
    achievements
    possible.

  4. Question: What the toughest challenge that an innovator faces?

    Answer: It’s different for every innovator, but the one that crushes many is how
    bored the rest of the world was by their ideas. Finding support, whether
    emotional, financial, or intellectual, for a big new idea is very hard and
    depends on skills that have nothing to do with intellectual prowess or
    creative ability. That’s a killer for many would-be geniuses: they have to
    spend way more time persuading and convincing others as they do inventing,
    and they don’t have the skills or emotional endurance for it.

  5. Question: Where do inventors and innovators get their ideas?

    Answer: I teach a creative thinking course at the University of Washington, and the
    foundation is that ideas are combinations of other ideas. People who earn
    the label “creative” are really just people who come up with more
    combinations of ideas, find interesting ones faster, and are willing to try
    them out. The problem is most schools and
    organizations train us out of the habits.

  6. Question: Why do innovators face such rejection and negativity?

    Answer: It’s human nature—we protect ourselves from change. We like to think we’re
    progressive, but every wave of innovation has been much slower than we’re
    told. The telegraph, the telephone, the PC, and the internet all took decades
    to develop from ideas into things ordinary people used. As a species we’re
    threatened by change and it takes a long time to convince people to change
    their behavior, or part with their money.

  7. Question: How do you know if you have a seemingly stupid idea according to the
    “experts” that will succeed or a stupid idea that is truly stupid?

    Answer: Don’t shoot me, but the answer is we can’t know. Not for certain. That’s
    where all the fun and misery comes in. Many stupid ideas have been
    successful and many great ideas have died on the vine and that’s because
    success hinges on factors outside of our control.

    The best bet is to be an
    experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to
    get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience
    with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time. Innovation is a
    practice—a set of habits—and it involves making lots of mistakes and being
    willing to learn from them.

  8. Question: If you were a venture capitalist, what would your investment thesis be?

    Answer: Two parts: neither is original, but they borne out by history. One is
    portfolio. Invest knowing most ventures, even good ones, fail, and
    distribute risk on some spectrum (e.g. 1/3 very high risk, 1/3 high risk,
    1/3 moderate risk). Sometimes seemingly small, low risk/reward innovations
    have big impacts and it’s a mistake to only make big bets.

    The other idea is
    people: I’d invest in people more than ideas or business plans—though those
    are important of course. A great entrepreneur who won’t give up and will
    keep growing and learning is gold. It’s a tiny percentage of entrepreneurs
    who have any real success the first few times out—3M, Ford, Flickr were all
    second or third efforts. I’d also give millions of dollars to authors of recent
    books on innovation with the word Myth in the title. The future is really
    in their hands.

  9. Question: What are the primary determinants of the speed of adoption of innovation?

    Answer: The classic
    research on the topic is Diffusion of Innovation by Rogers, which defines
    factors that hold up well today. The surprise to us is that they’re all
    sociological: based on people’s perception of value and their fear of
    risks—which often has little to do with our view of how amazing a
    particular technology is. Smarter innovators know this and pay attention
    from day one to who they are designing for and how to design the website or
    product in a way that supports their feelings and beliefs.

  10. Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?

    Answer: Problem definition is definitely under-rated, but they’re both important.
    New ideas often come from asking new questions and being a creative
    question asker. We fixate on solutions and popular literature focuses on
    creative people as being solvers, but often the creativity is in
    reformulating a problem so that it’s easier to solve. Einstein and Edison
    were notorious problem definers: they defined the problem differently than
    everyone else and that’s what led to their success.

  11. Question: Why don’t the best ideas win?

    Answer: One reason is because the best idea doesn’t exist. Depending on your point
    of view, there’s a different best idea or best choice for a particular
    problem. I’m certain that they guys who made telegraphs didn’t think the
    telephone was all that good an idea, but it ended their livelihood. So many
    stories of progress gone wrong are about arrogance of perception: what one
    person thinks is the right path—often the path most profitable to them—
    isn’t what another, more influential group of people thought.

  12. Question: Is innovation more likely to come from young people or old people? Or is
    age
    simply not a factor?

    Answer: Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds
    you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write
    his nineth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay
    creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the
    stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They
    understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know
    what there is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have
    fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier
    to try crazy things.

Example of a Simple, and Amazing Innovation

By GSS on April 20, 2007 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

Since making a verbal commitment to myself that I would fill this blog with multimedia (my success ratio on verbal self-commitments like this is about 58%), I am blown away about how easy it has been to have my last three posts involve just that–multimedia.  More great fodder for an interesting topic, found in video format…

The video entitled "Clothes Hangers" demonstrates, what I think to be, an amazing, yet wonderfully simple innovation on an ubiquitous, household concept: the closet and hanger.  I would love to have this in my home.  But, it demonstrates the power of someone taking a common item, asking "what do I not like about this and how could it be better?".  I can’t speak to whether that was actually the concept development process that designer, Daniel To, went through.  But, in my experience, this is often a simplified form of the thought process that people go through when developing simple, but highly effective innovations to existing concepts and products.  If you’re looking for product ideas, perhaps you can walk around your home or office and ask that question.  If you come up with something like this, I’ll buy it. 

 

Independent Inventors Have Changed Our World

By GSS on January 30, 2007 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

If I explained to you some of the product and invention ideas I’ve run across in the last year, I’m guessing your reactions to the overwhelming majority of them would be "who would want that?" or "good luck making that."  I have had to train myself to refrain from the impulse judgments that run through my mind when people begin explaining their ideas, because the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to predict what is going to do well and why.  We never turn away a project just because we personally don’t think it will find a market. 

To emphasize the point, I ran across a list put together by Inventors Digest which lists 264 products created by university or independent inventors.  I’ve listed a few I found interesting.  Im sure the creators of the following products met considerable resistance when developing these items.

  • Airbag (Allen Breed)
    • Can you imagine trying to explain this product?  "So let me get this straight, when your car crashes, a bag blows up in your face…?"
  • Apple computer (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak)
    • It’s well known that IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation (the 2nd largest computer manufacturer in the 1980s) missed the boat on this one. In 1977, Ken Olsen, Founder and CEO of the Digital Equipment Corporation, said "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home". 
  • Dishwasher (Josephine Garis Cochraine)
    • Thanks Josephine.
  • Hula Hoop (Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin, founders of
    the Wham-O Company)
    • Who knew that gyrating at the waist, alone with your clothes on, could be that much fun?
  • Jell-O® (Peter Cooper)
    • If I wasn’t told what this was and walked in a room and saw this on the table, eating it would be the last thing on my mind.  Now, I think of Bill Cosby.
  • Parking meter (Carlton Magee)
    • This might be one product that if Carlton Magee came to me and asked me to work on, I might have to say "no".
  • Safety pin (Walter Hunt)
    • Such a simple and small idea, and ubiquitous in our society.
  • Snowboard (Tim Sims)
    • When these guys developed this product, not many people thought an alternative to skiing was necessary or that this one in particular would be it, if there should be an alternative (some still believe this).  In 2004, the National Sporting Goods Association reported that their are 6.6 million snowboarders.  I am one of them.
  • Water Skis (Ralph Samuelson)
    • I couldn’t find whether the water version or the snow version was invented first.  Either way, one was a derivative application of skis to a new medium.  Placing ideas or products into new contexts can open up a wealth of opportunities.
  • World Wide Web (Tim Berners-Lee)
    • I didn’t know a single person was credited with this.  Along with computers, I believe the societal impact will someday rank up there with the wheel and writing. 

Believe in your idea or product as long as you feel is necessary.

Google’s Patent Search

By GSS on January 16, 2007 | Category: Product Innovation | No Comments

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Google’s ever-expanding wings brings us their patent search engine, making an initial patent search a few clicks away.  For those who are the kind to sprout forth new ideas with every new activity, challenge, or chore, and also have internet access via a cell phone, you can now run a few quick, initial patent searches to see if anything like your idea is already patented.

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