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The History of Innovation…and where ideas come from

March 30th, 2010 by admin 4 comments »

Once in a while, I like to get an historical perspective on Creativity and Innovation.  I found four websites that are very helpful in doing this:

1) my favorite site is The Great Idea Finder - this site looks like it was created in 1996 and in serious need of  a web 2.0 programmer, but it’s full of great research, ideas and history.  Check out It’s About Time for a day-by-day history timeline, or Invention and Inventor Lists for interesting lists of patents, inventors, entrepreneurs and more.

2) Inventors - this community is full of great insights on the history of inventors (a subset of creators and innovators in my mind).  Wonderful information on the history of many famous inventions and inventors -or search by your favorite invention

–> an added bonus to the site is “Today in History” - pick any date and the site has a wiki-list of famous inventions, patent filings, and note-worthy “aha-moments” that occurred on that date.   For example, this day, on March 30th, the following happened: “1956 Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted.” Click on “Birthdays” and you find:

  • 1842 – Dr. Crawford Long was the first physician to use ether as anesthetic
  • 1865 – German physicist, Heinrich Rubens
  • 1876 – Clifford Whittingham Beers was a mental hygiene pioneer
  • 1892 – Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach
  • 1894 – Russian airplane builder, Sergei Ilyushin
  • 1912 – Andrew Rodger Waterson was a noted naturalist

3) the Inventors Timeline – takes you back to the Paleolithic Era then forward to present time, identifying all key inventions known to the world…a very interesting way to see how the pace of technology is quickening.  

4) the Timeline Index – a nice visual timelime of Inventors through the recent ages – also an interesting timeline for other areas such as artists, philosophers, actors, etc).  Click on any person’s name and it gives you a detailed page on their biography, related links, etc.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The big question that people often ask me about my work with entrepreneurs and innovators is “So, where do ideas come from? Conventional wisdom is that ideas come from an “AHA” moment that an inventor has – for example, the moment that Art Fry at 3M Corp realized he had inadvertently created a sticky substance that could be used on paper to create the “post-it” note,  or the moment that Archimedes sat in his bath tub and realized that the water he had displaced held an important clue to measuring density of matter.
But in looking HISTORICALLY at actual inventions that have made produced the most profound changes in human history —   the wheel, electricity, the automobile, the light bulb, the small-pox vaccination, the computer chip, the television,  the Worldwide Web — we find that there was no “AHA” moment…there were a myriad of smaller progressive discoveries leading to a key discover from one person or group that seems to solidify

I was speaking at the Computer History Museum this past week and arriving early, took the time to look at the work of Charles Babbage, who is regarded as the “Father of Computing.”  In 1822 he created an entirely mechanical “Difference Engine” (see photo I took to right, owned by Nathan Myrvold) which was meant to calculate mathematics (polynomials) and he later created a “Analytics Engine” that used punch cards. Babbage’s inventions resulted from a hundreds of years of European discoveries of how machines work, including work dating back to the time of Leonardo Davinci and the abacus dating back to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.  It was Babbage who lived in a time where the “technology” (small metal parts) and mathematical understanding enabled him to implement the first working prototype.  Babbage worked through his lifetime to complete these designs.  The engine was a creation born from a series of historical baby steps.

Take a more recent invention – the PDA…Palm gets much of the credit for it, but its birth was due to a number of companies all working the overall product from various angles.   Psion, Apple,Xerox, others …a visit to the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale shows the tale. There was no “aha” moment of innovation in the discovery of the PDA – it too seems to be more Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, author/entrepreneur/blogger/professor Scott Berkun makes a pretty good case for the fact that innovations never seem to evolve in a straight line.  Ideas are formed, tested out, failures occur, competitors emerge in an area of great “hope” and eventually some lucky company emerges as the one to popularize the new innovation.

According to Berkun, ideas come from either hard work in a specific direction, or the combination of two or more (heretofore separate) ideas, or curiosity, or wealth, or necessity or luck — or some combination of all of these.

In his book The Medici Effect, my friend Frans Johansson points out that some of the most prolific bursts of new ideas (such as those found in 15th Century Italy, banked by the Medici Family in Florence) come from a confluence of different disciplines or cultures, combined in new and unusual ways.  Johansson delineates “directional” and “intersectional” innovation.  Directional innovation – like the light bulb which  Thomas Edison found through years of testing, is evolutionary with a focused linear path.  Intersectional innovation – for example the Googles combination of new search algorithms with an approach to listing advertising as words -  is ALSO evolutionary.  The research the Google founders did at Stanford was  descendant  from previous work at Yahoo and Infoseek, and the advertising approach they used was borrowed from (later became Overture).  It was the fortuitous combination of these two ideas (intersection) that led to the most innovative company of all time.   Serendipity certainly played a role for both Edison and Google founders – more on that in a future blog post.

I’m challenged to think of an example of innovation which was not in some way evolutionary – building upon prior ideas, research or thought.

I’m curious if any of my readers can think of examples…

The iOrganization – Building That Innovation Culture

February 24th, 2010 by admin 2 comments »

Just read Josh Cable’s Industry Week article on Building an Innovation Culture.

Several thoughts on this, as someone who has worked for both large (IBM, Apple, Paramount/Viacom, AOL) companies in my past  — all of whom where relatively innovative, and someone who has worked with many innovative START-UP companies in the past 20 years…

I agree with Josh that some tenets of a culture of innovation are:

  • risk-taking  and unconventional thinking are encouraged
  • technical personnel are pushed to venture beyond their comfort zones
  • leadership takes a role in shaping this “entrepreneurial” behavior with the firm
  • specific corporate roles (like Chief Innovation Officer) are used to drive policy and action
  • mentoring programs from senior execs to model/encourage organizational creativity

This principals mirror many that I talked about in a previous post “10 Ways Leaders Create Innovation”.

However, I may disagree with Josh on one fundamental point – it’s not just the TECHNICAL personnel that one can push, it is ALL DEPARTMENTS.  There are enclaves of originality/entrepreneurship often locked up within many different parts of the organization and leadership can influence innovative/creative behavior from many different departments…but it takes very different forms in the iOrganization.  I call this “functional creativity” and the idea is to unlock it in several areas – not just technical/product sides of the business.  For example:

  • Marketing can be very innovative in the way it marks target markets and draws in new customers
  • Sales can become very creative in the way it sells/distributes to products
  • R&D can innovate in product, design, and “customer development” (how it includes the customer in its design process
  • HR can be innovative in the way it sets the culture (building upon the example leaders are setting)
  • Production/Operations can be creative in how it reduces expenses and re-engineers core “activities”
  • and…the entire organization can be innovative in the way it develops new business models (as a team)

I call a firm that has 3 or more of these innovation pockets moving at once The iOrganization (The Innovative Organization).  The typical iOrganization has 3 overall elements combined into one: (a)  the leadership to set an example of how to be creative in a corporate setting , (b) the culture to match the leaders’ examples – one that embraces change, flexibility and risk-taking, and (c) surrounded by the right environment — leading to a the bias for creative action.

In the next 5 years, I believe that adopting an iOrganiztion mentality and  innovation as a “survival” strategy and not just a growth strategy for firms, as Josh points out in his article. And the senior team (particularly the CEO) have to exude the qualities that they want their iOrganization to follow – creative behavior can be taught and caught.

In a recent email exchange with author Robert Brands (a new book on corporate innovation called “Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival”), we both concurred that this is where the iOrganization typically falls short – the leadership has to set the example, and has to do it in concrete and visible ways.
I’d like to hear others’ thought on this and real world examples  – please comment on this blog post, or tweet me at

Creativity at Any Age

February 20th, 2010 by admin 2 comments »

I read this week’s Wall Street Journal article “Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity” (WSJ, Feb 20, 1010, p. W3) with fascination…

The article, by Jonah Lehrer, suggests the following:

  • Scientific & technical revolutions are often led by younger minds (think Newton, Watson, Einstein, Madame Curie, Jobs, Andreessen)
  • Certain fields lend themselves to innovation by younger minds, including Physics, Math & Poetry, Chess
  • There seems to be an inverted U-curve that describes human capacity for creative thought, with the top of the u-curve coming somewhere between the ages of 25 and 50.
  • The disciplines of  Biology, History, Novel-writing, and Philosophy might not peak until their late 40′s
  • Many individuals have increased their creativity later in life by switching fields of study (thus potentially applying learnings from one field to another in a “intersectional” manner (see my prior blog post on this called “Intersectional Creativity& Mash-ups”)

One key part of this argument I do buy is this:  when we are young, we are likely to take more risks and we are likely to be less encumbered by rules bestowed upon us by marriage, work, community, church, etc.  In other words the YOUNGER MIND, in general, does have the advantage of being FREE to make key connections that the older mind has to work harder to achieve amidst a cadre of society-driven rules which have been enforced for a longer period of time.

While I don’t disagree with the premise that certain professions require young/fresh minds to attack them, the author neglected to mention the wide variety of creative careers that have taken off for LATE BLOOMERS in many fields.

Old Farts Have Been Creative Too!

The NY Times article highlights “Five sicentists who made their marks while they were young”, including: Archimedes (in his 20s when sitting in the bathtub), Marie Curie (just turned 30 when investigating radioactivity), Galileo Galilei (speed of objects falling in late 20′s), William Lawrence Bragg (x-rays and crystal structure; Nobel laureate at age 25), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Manhattan Project lead, first discoveries at 23 years old).

Indeed, these great discoveries (involving major sciences) were made by youngsters who could view the world in an alternative way and remove themselves from the scientific “rule-sets” of their days. (Archimedes was quite fortunate to thrive in an ancient society of Greece that rewarded created thinking)

But there is a variety of evidence that older humans have the capacity for creativity & innovation – well into their “retirement” years.

Here are a few I immediately dug up:

1) Ben Franklin - perhaps one of the greatest of all American Inventors – invented the Lightening Rod at age 44 and discovered electricity at 46, drafted the Declaration of Independence at age 70, invented bifocals in late 70′s.

2) Henry Ford - founded Ford Motors in late 30s and geared up production lines in his late 40′s.

3) Sam Walton – launched the first Walmart, in , at age 44.

4) Ray Kroc – was 52 when he incorporated the innovative new approach later called “McDonalds”.

5) Ray Kurzweil - author of more than 10 books on topic of scientific thought and futuristic thinking, has come up with some of his most impressive new ideas long after the age of 50 (he was born in 1948 and is 62 this year).  His book The Singularity Is Near was published when he was 55)

6) Alfred Hitchcock - his best and most creative films were done after the age of 50.

7) Guru Singh – one of my friends and mentors, Guru Singh, who is now over 60 is one of the most creative authors, teachers and global social conscience innovators that I know. Check out his blog !

Can you think of other examples?

Conceptual vs Experimental Innovators

A great article from Wired Magazine, written in July 2006, reminds us that Genius can come at many ages. Researcher David Galenson (Harvard) underscores the difference between creative activity can be found in two forms: “Conceptual” innovators and “Experimental Innovators”.  The Conceptual Innovators tend to come up with their ideas at an early age, in big dramatic leaps into new vectors – the Experimental Innovators seem to have a slower path to the great “aha” moment, trying many variations over time (think: Thomas Edison).
I like to think about Bill Gates – he appears to be a Conceptual Innovator in his youth in the area of software, but in later life (post 50 now), he is starting to innovate in new areas  Oddly enough, a number of employees attracted to Microsoft, including Jeff Raikes, Nathan Myrvold, Paul Allen – all seem to be blooming in new creative ways – I suppose they are “experimental” innovators now.

In my role at UC Berkeley, I try to surround myself with the ideas, theory, practice and real world examples of great minds, creativity and innovation…and it seems to come in many forms and many ages.  It all gives me comfort in knowing that at age 49, I still have plenty of time to make my major creative contribution to society.  

What are your thoughts on this topic? Respond below or  Tweet me at

Innovative Company – Triporati

February 9th, 2010 by admin No comments »

Jim Hornthal is a serial entrepreneur, angel, and venture investor in the Silicon Valley.  Jim is the former Founder and Chairman of Preview Travel, a company that rose within the Travel industry during the early digital days, went public and subsequently merged with Travelocity. As the Harvard Business School case by Bill Sahlman on Preview, will tell you:  this was a yo-yo ride from start to finish for Preview – but along the way Hornthal became an expert on travel and online behavior.

What is Triporati?

Perhaps that’s the reason that Jim’s mention of his new company on travelor behavior caught my attention over lunch with him last year, and even more so when he recently demo’d the applications he’s built in “stealth” mode these past 18 months.   The company is called Triporati and the product Jim has launched showcases a bit of  the technology/IP that will eventually become part of the fabric of the $trillion dollar  travel industry.

Arriving at Triperati, the user is given an option to “play the game” – filling out details on one’s personal travel preferences allows a user to narrow down a series of potentially interesting vacation destinations. The more details one provides on their interests and travel experience, the more specific the suggestions the system can make.  And the system learns as the user engages more with the system

The system works in a way similar to a  project, the Music Genome Project, , circa 2000, in which a team  broke down music listening into 400 attributes.  That IP forms the basis for a company called Pandora.

Genomes, DNA and Heredity

The team at Triperati calls this the “vacation genome” project.  In other words, it is capturing the “building blocks” built around one’s travel or vacation interests.  The “genome” in a biological context refers to the both the genes and non-coding sequences of DNA.  So, if Triporati is truly looking at the “genes” of travel/vacation consume decisions, then it must take into account both the choices that unfold from one’s interests AND the history (think:  biological history or heredity) of one’s choices in prior trips/travels/excursions.

This, according to Hornthal, is in fact the objective of the company. To capture both the ontology of vacations and the taxonomy of travel – and put the two together inot a useful IP/algorithm that helps predict future vacations of interest. Furthermore, users who are logged into the Triperati system would be leaving a digital footprint that serves as the “non-coding” portion of the equation, or history/heredity.

This intersection of multiple sciences, as it is applied to travel (a third intersection) is rather intriguing.

In theory, such a system would allow the owner to provide a much more customized/targeted system of choices to users who are not totally clear on where they’d like to go for “next year’s family fun.”

Triporati is funded by angels and CME Ventures (SF) and is currently engaging in several significant partnerships to enable its technology on others’ platforms, as well as testing out its own consumer site,

Other industries could benefit

Vacation genomes not only have bearing upon the “travel” industry, but they also could impact the “concierges” industry.  Not familiar with this industry?  It’s a growing $2B+ industry.  A sample company (disclaimer: I’m on the Board)  is Les Concierges, based in SF.  This company currently serves a whos-who of corporate clients (such as Nordstroms, Fidelity, Amex, BofA and VISA), and has recently inked a major partnership with insurance industry behemoth Axa.  The Concierge market focuses not only on travel requests, but also on events (such as concerts), gifts (such as anniversary), venues (such as ball-parks, restaurants), and other goods and services.  A genome approach to this industry would be a HUGE way to assist those calling on the concierges.

Whatever the outcome for Triporati, I find the team’s approach to travel to be a forebearer of more of this to come – understand the users profile, pattern-matching travel/trips to other “like” experiences.

Jim is the former Founder and Chairman of Preview Travel, a company that rose within the Travel industry during the early digital days, went public, and subsequently merged with Travelocity. As the Harvard Business School case by Bill Sahlman on Preview, will tell you:  this was a yo-yo ride from start to finish for Preview – but along the way Hornthal became an expert on travel and online behavior.

Back to the Future? – The Apple iPad

February 2nd, 2010 by admin 3 comments »

Reminiscing the old Apple Days

This week’s announcement of the iPad was “reminiscent” of my time from 1988-1993 as an Apple employee and reminded me of the difference between “Creativity” and “Innovation.”

In the mid/late 1980′s, John Sculley was CEO of Apple – and constant clashes with the head of R&D, Jean-Luis Gassee, finally led to Gassee’s departure from the company.  But they did create some magic together. One of my favorite bits of magic was the introduction of a video that would articulate the future direction of Apple – a creative vision for what Apple could be when it grew up.

But, oddly, Apple then took a series of twists and turns that took it away from vision and into the personal computer wars – wars it could not win.  It wasn’t until Jobs returned to Apple in the ’90s that the firm could go back to its old creative self and begin to innovate on a series of products that would eventually take it BACK TO THE FUTURE.

A Creative Vision

In 1987, in Cupertino, Apple employees and press were treated to a video, which we found to be incredibly imaginative at the time and provided us with a glimpse of what would someday come. If you haven’t seen this, or had forgotten about it…check this out:

The Apple Navigator, in my mind, was an incredible creative vision for the future.  “Internet-like” access is implied in the vision, but is 8 years ahead of its time.  Also included:  a book-like interface, ubiquitous Search, voice-recognition, intelligent agents, touch screen, virtual assistant, high-resolution graphics, integrated (video) telephone, visual analysis and simulation, 3D graphics, embedded camera/video, distance-learning, virtual scheduling/calendaring, and more (how many things did I miss?).

Fast-forward to last week’s announcement of the iPad:

We all watched the announcement of the iPad this week, and it was the talk of most circles.

OK.  In 1985 the  folks at Apple missed a few things that were part of this week’s iPad launch:

- access to the world’s library of magazines, books and reading materials

- access to100 million websites, 6 million blogs and 1 million new-sites

- the integration of the music, movies, television and video in a book-like interface

- hand-movement recognition

Still, even having missed these features, it’s amazing the number of features that early Apple inventors were thinking about…Keep in mind, this is only 5 years after the launch of the IBM PC, and  8 years before the Internet came into vogue for the consumer masses, 15 years before Skype was accepted as a workable communications solution, and 20 years before I projected a lecturer onto the screen of my classroom at UC Berkeley!

Is it any wonder Apple us regarded as one of the greatest think-tanks and most innovative companies in the world?

Creativity vs Innovation

Creativity is about great new ideas – ideas that transcend our current status-quo, ideas that are “intersectional” (combining elements from 2 or more previously unrelated sources), ideas that make us see things in new ways.

Innovation is about bringing these ideas to life and making them work in the economic, social, business and market context.

I think it is pretty intriguing that  last week’s launch of the iPad brings Apple one huge step closer to turning a Creative vision of the 1985 Navigator into an actual market-place Innovation, that is likely to be sold to tens of millions of consumers and businesses in the coming years.