10 Professional Prototyping Tips from Shuya Gong of Ideo

Search YouTube for ‘Ideo shopping cart,’ and you will find a vintage 1990s ABC Nightline clip with over 1.3 million views. It doesn’t feature celebrities or world leaders, just a group of designers from the product development firm Ideo. The stars of the video are an eclectic mix of innovators, including an engineer, a linguist, a marketing expert, a psychologist, and individuals with MBA and biology degrees. They are working on a one-week assignment to imagine then prototype a next-generation shopping cart. The resulting design – complete with a scanner attached to the cart that would allow you to scan and bag your groceries while you shop – certainly looked odd in 1999. However, if you go into some grocery stores today, you are actually able to do just that, scanning your items using an app on your smartphone. 

With wild ideas bursting from a multidisciplinary team, the video shows an innovation process that was quite radical in the ‘90s but has since become normal and a proven way of success adopted by some of the brightest companies in the world, including Google and Apple. These days, Ideo is still innovating, although they have moved from product design to a full platform that includes an array of services. 

Shuya Gong works within the Ideo CoLab, a collaborative innovation platform focusing on human-centered design. From her experience creating prototypes for a variety of companies, she offers these professional prototyping tips and insights. 

10 Professional Prototyping Tips

1. You can prototype anything.

For those who think prototyping isn’t their ‘thing,’ Shuya stresses that prototyping is important for all entrepreneurs and business owners. “A prototype is a question made tangible,” says Shuya. “You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”

2. Get a great team and trust the process.

As mentioned before, the best innovation happens when you gather a multidisciplinary team where everyone can tackle the project from different angles to create truly unique concepts and prototypes. Of course, Shuya cautions that working on a team is hard; expect to go through a rollercoaster of divergence and convergence of ideas. Embrace the process and know that you’re going to come through at the end. 

3. Build your (and your team’s) creative confidence.

One of the top professional prototyping tips is to build creative confidence. This is the baseline to making creativity happen, and for allowing innovation to happen inside your business. To encourage more innovation, entrepreneurs and business owners should create a culture where wild ideas are embraced, and everyone is invited into the innovation process no matter their rank or background. “A designer is someone who makes stuff with the intent of usability,” remarks Shayo. Everyone within the organization can contribute to the design and prototyping process.

4. Design is a three-step process.

Design is a three-step process

“Think of design as a process. It goes from inspiration to ideation to implementation,” explains Shuya.

  • Inspiration: Get inspired about the problem you are trying to solve. Understand how to look at people, how to understand what they’re thinking, and how to have empathy. This part of the process involves observing as well as interviewing users.
  • Ideation: “Ideation is the part that gets really messy,” says Shuya. After you have gathered information from your target market, it’s time to put everything together and try to understand it. Based on their feedback, you start generating a lot of ideas—some even wild and bizarre—in the ideation step.
  • Implementation: Implementation is about taking the final ideas from the ideation step and executing them in order to create the prototype and bring your product or service to the market. For this most difficult step, Shuya recommends that you have a good COO.

5. Remember for whom you are designing.

Your client or customer is the most important part of the prototyping process because your aim is to make something desirable for them. To understand why you’re making something, gain insight into the pain points because you can’t fix something if you don’t know why or what is broken. Shuya recommends doing ‘design research’ which is different from ‘marketing research’ in that it is open-ended, exploratory, and aimed at discovering the main questions and problems (to which you will develop answers and solutions).

6. Engage in venture design.

Venture design is different from normal design because venture design is about creating the unseeable, creating something that when you put it out in the world, people look at it and say “Whoa! I need this right now! I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already!” As Shuya explains it, if you consider the world and everything that is real on one plane, the concrete plane, then everything above it is abstract. You want to be on that upper, abstract plane when you are venture designing. The goal is to find something that doesn’t exist yet but will make people’s lives much easier.

7. Gather inspiration from everywhere.

It is old school wisdom to carry a pen and paper around with you all the time to log your ideas. Shuya has a tip for the modern era—just get an Instagram account and take pictures of all the interesting things that you encounter so you can remember them. When you get stuck in a spot and don’t understand how to solve a problem, go back through your Instagram photos. “Probably you’ve taken a picture of something inspiring at some point in time that will trigger some great idea,” says Shuya.

8. Less talking, more doing.

Less talking, more doing image

When you get to the ideation stage, be very urgent and action-oriented about the task at hand. Don’t worry about making things perfect or thinking about what is ‘possible.’ Those details can be figured out later, but for now, it’s time to get every imperfect idea out for consideration.

9. Strong ideas, weakly held.

While it is good to be passionate about your ideas, it’s also important to be very open when you go out and get feedback on your prototype. If people don’t get it immediately, don’t try to explain it to them (as if it’s a perfect idea and they don’t get it because they’re stupid.) “That’s the complete opposite way of getting user feedback for a prototype,” says Shuya. It’s more important to know what people don’t like about your idea than what they do like about it. After all the feedback comes in, you can make sense of it by clustering groups of responses together and trying to understand themes. This will give you plenty of ideas for how you can improve the next version of your prototype.

10. Remember the art of storytelling.

When it comes time to pitch your idea and prototype, first take some time to figure out what your story is. What is the overarching narrative of your company and product/service? What is your mission? Why are you here in the world? Whose lives do you make easier? Telling a story about your venture will help people remember it better. While pitching will get you money, storytelling will make people develop a deeper emotional connection.


“You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”


Prototyping should be a fast-paced process that happens quickly…think of that new-age shopping cart developed by Ideo in one-week, with innovative ideas that were nearly a decade before their time. It’s action-oriented, it’s exhilarating, it’s rowdy, it’s inventive. There is no guarantee for a win either, so don’t be afraid to fail. “And when you do fail, just repeat, “It’s fine,” offers Shuya. “This is what innovative companies do all the time.” 

“This is my job,” says Shuya. “I go from zero to venture concept in one week, using technology-led design.” Using her professional prototyping tips, you can take your own inspiration and bizarre ideas, and rapidly prototype them into products and services that will change people’s lives.

7 Innovation Tips from the Theatre to the Executive Office

7 Innovation Tips from the Theatre to the Executive Office Featured Image
“As all good business deals happen, I was in a bar talking to another theatre professional, martinis in hand, and he said, ‘I think we should start a theatre company.’ I was like, ‘I’ve already got one—I don’t need another.’ And he looked at me so earnestly and just said ‘No, a company for us. We need to put this kind of work and our people and our faces in front of the city all of the time. This is how we break down barriers—by showing people our stories and our humanity.’ Two martinis in and I was crying. I’m like, ‘This is the greatest idea ever; we should do it.’ And we did.” That story from Dawn Simmons, a playwright, and director with dozens of successful projects in Boston theatres, came after she had just finished an all-black theatre show with an all-black cast. The conversation with Maurice Parent led to the creation of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a black-led theatre company located in Central Square, which aims to “break down boundaries by having theatre shaped by the diversity of the community it represents.”  Front Porch, as Dawn calls it for short, was created with hopes to inspire, empower, and create a platform for underrepresented artists in Boston and New England. As a trailblazer who has been fighting racism and encouraging diversity in Boston, Dawn shared with us several innovation tips and insights that she has learned in her career in theatre which are applicable to any industry and any entrepreneur. 

1. Immerse Yourself in Every Aspect of Your Business/Industry

Dawn studied playwriting at Boston University and got a job right away after school, even though she knew from early on that she wanted to run a company. “I took every opportunity that I could find within my field,” she says, “just so that I could learn more about the field I wanted to work in.” Like any business, theatre is complex, with many different moving parts and pieces. One time, Dawn took on the job of running crew on a play: running after actors, changing their clothes, handing them props, and changing the scenery. She also took a job as an administrative assistant, and positions in literary management and company management. All of these jobs gave Dawn a larger view of how a theatre business operates, and how each job has a specific function that contributes to the end result you see on stage. All budding business owners can do the same thing, learning as much as they can about their business or industry, so they understand how all parts work individually and how they work together as a whole.

2. Meet Everyone You Can

Meet Everyone You Can Image While Dawn was sampling all aspects of theatre to get an understanding of business and production as a whole, she was also focused on connecting with others in the industry. “Be in every room that you can, meet every person of importance that in the field that you can,” says Dawn. “There are so many people that I met when I was 25 that, right now in my mid-40s, have pushed me to be where I am or who just opened a door.” Dawn says she can’t say enough good things about professional organizations. The people she met gave her insight into the Boston theatre scene, and the network she built helped further her career. In fact, Front Porch Arts Collective is currently being funded by three Boston theatre companies (Lyric State Company, Central Square Theatre, and Greater Boston Stage) all thanks to the connections she and her business partner Maurice made throughout their careers.

3. Dare to Be Different

Before starting Front Porch, Dawn started another theatre company called New Exhibition Room, which focused on things that were different, exploratory, and often covering subjects regarding interpersonal and socioeconomic politics. This sort of theatre was not really being done in Boston at the time, which gave the company a unique position. Dawn remembers doing berserk things like staging a zombie apocalypse and doing promenade theatre in Boston Commons with artists in costumes and pop-up performances everywhere. “There was nobody to tell us what we couldn’t do,” reflects Dawn. “We just sort of had ideas and threw them at the wall to see what people were interested in.” With both New Exhibition Room and Front Porch Arts Collective, Dawn has always been interested in looking at things from a different perspective, in telling stories in a different way, and with a different cast of characters, such as when she staged Men on Boats with an all-female cast, including a transgender male and three people who were gender non-conforming.  She is also planning to direct The Three Musketeers with an all-black cast. “That sort of swashbuckling, restoration-like hero trope is not the place that you always see us,” says Dawn. “So we get to now insert ourselves into the story, because we were there all along, and we get to think about how we are going to tell it, and how we can make this more of our story.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail image One of the top innovation tips you need to know is that innovation requires that you do something different, which is exactly what Dawn aims for in her theatre productions, and what all business owners should strive for in their companies. But that doesn’t mean everything you try will work. In fact, Dawn says that the Men on Boats show that was mentioned above was a failure. Dawn assembled a unique cast and chose a unique vision for the story that was loved by all those who were working behind the scenes, including the actors and the parent company. Everyone was happy with the production, but for some reason, it didn’t resonate with audiences. “It was hard to watch people go out on stage every night, and do this thing that we loved and that we believed in…you could hear people in the audience that were like, ‘I don’t get it.’” recalls Dawn. “The thing that we learned was that every night you still have to go out there, you still have to do it.” Accepting failure means saying, “We’ve tried this and nobody wanted it, and that’s okay.” Dawn is perhaps a bit more resilient than others because theatre, and improvisation specifically, teaches you that it is okay to get uncomfortable, even in front of a group of people. “The ability to look foolish gives you the ability to try anything,” says Dawn. That attitude – and a thick skin – is helpful for any business owner or entrepreneur who wants to explore big, innovative ideas.

5. Find Business Partners Who Complement You

As Dawn reflects on her journey, she contemplates the people she partnered with along the way and how they helped her to become successful individually and as a company. For example, before starting the New Exhibition Room, Dawn thought that she didn’t want to start a company of her own but rather wanted to run someone else’s company. A friend came to her and convinced her that they should start the New Exhibition Room together. “I have that person, that number two, who has the vision, and I know that I’m a person who can execute that vision,” she says. Further, Dawn and Front Porch cofounder Maurice also complement each other. “One person who’s always shooting for the stars, and one person who’s like ‘let’s just hold back a little bit,’ has worked really well for me in all of the companies and all of the work that I have done,” says Dawn. “It’s just a good balance of dreaming and caution.” Business owners and entrepreneurs can also find a complementary partner to help inside the business. How do you find the right person? Dawn says, “Every chance you get, find that person who pushes you, who scares you, who says that thing where you are like ‘we can’t possibly do that.’”

6. Capture Every Idea

The idea generation process is of ultimate importance in innovation, which makes it one of her top innovation tips on the list. Dawn’s process is to capture every idea that comes to mind by writing it down and keeping journals. “If you come into my home, there are post-it notes of every idea I have, for stories I want to tell, things I want to write, things I want to try.” Her ideas are kept present and visible, so they are never far from mind. Dawn also advocates having a group of friends to talk to and hash out ideas. She says that every once in a while there is an idea that just won’t let her sleep, so she gets friends together, gathers them in the room, and tries to hash the idea out. Using fun improv exercises, she can see where her friends take the idea. What they show in actions and dialogues gives her ideas that she can translate into her writing. Idea generation can be a solo activity or a group activity, but make sure that it is action-oriented and aimed at pushing those ideas further.

7. Know-How to Learn From and Lead Your Team

“So how would I categorize my leadership style? Collaborative. Possibly collaborative to a fault,” says Dawn. “I don’t think I’m the most innovative person, but I know folks who are. I know folks who are more creative than me.” Dawn loves to hear the creative ideas of her team, and she tries to give them space so they can do their best work.  

 “I think for us, the ability to humanize ourselves in story form is what has really worked.”


Being humble and learning from your team is a great strategy for any entrepreneur, in the same vein of the phrase ‘never be the smartest person in the room.’ However, the other side of managing a team is knowing when to take over and lead them. As all the ideas are flowing in, the leader has to be the one to take those ideas, see how they are coalescing, and decide what it will look like when it all comes together. Collaboration is an excellent model for leadership, but there always has to be someone steering the ship—another tip from Dawn that budding entrepreneurs should keep in mind. In the end, for any business owner or entrepreneur, innovation is only as strong as the fuel behind it. For Dawn, that fuel is her higher goal of making sure that there is a space for artists of color to get work, that more stories of people of color are told, and that audiences are integrated so they can get a better understanding as they watch these stories together. There are many ways to reach Dawn’s goal of combating racism. “I think for us, the ability to humanize ourselves in story form is what has really worked.” While these innovation tips were all acquired from Dawn’s theatre work and business, they surely apply inside any corporate firms and business setups. 

David Graham: Pioneering Civic Innovation in San Diego, CA

“When I was a kid, my dad had a secret stash of magazines I wasn’t supposed to know about, hidden in the garage, buried in a box. But I knew where they were, so I’d sneak into the garage and leaf through the pages of those sexy Popular Science magazines because I wanted to know what the future would look like.”

Flash forward and David Graham, formerly the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Smart and Sustainable Communities in San Diego and currently the Chief Innovation Officer for the neighboring city of Carlsbad, would find himself in the position of creating the cities of the future. Here is a look at his work pioneering civic innovation in San Diego. 

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse image

The concept of ‘smart cities’ means bringing technological advances to a city that will improve its operations and the quality of life for its citizens. “But I’m going to admit something to you right now,” he says. “Most of our cities are incredibly dumb.” Why? Because there are some major challenges holding them back.

“We have these great technological advances to create things like cleaner mobility,” says David, “but the fundamental building blocks of our cities are still flawed.” When thinking about the challenges that cities face, he likes to think of them as ‘the four horsemen of the metro apocalypse.’

1. Rapid Urbanization

We know that by 2030, a third of the world will live in cities of 500,000 or more. Rapid urbanization means cramming more people into less space.

2. Aging Infrastructure

Around the US, $4 trillion dollars of investment is necessary just to catch up with the underfunded infrastructure investments.

3. Climate Change

Climate change is something that is affecting the entire world. While there are still deniers, even corporate America has come on board. When banks and rating agencies for bonds look and ask about your city, they ask whether the city has sustainability officers, because climate change is a real and specific threat.

4. Cyber Security

The city of San Diego got a million attacks a month on their network, many from known malicious addresses and over a hundred thousand that are verified to be specific attacks on the city. “This is probably our number one threat that we’re facing in cities today, and the one that we are least ready to deal with,” David adds. 

Civic Innovation Is the Solution

Civic Innovation Is the Solution image

The solution to these problems is found in civic innovation, says David. Broadly defined, it’s the process of co-creating with outside parties in order to strategically use technology and data to solve city problems. To look at it more specifically, we can examine several components and key ideas within the philosophy and process of civic innovation.

Gathering Data

Gathering data is the key to figuring out what’s going on in your city. To do this, San Diego made use of the most mundane of urban objects—the streetlight. 

The streetlight is a fundamental piece of infrastructure that people walk by every day but rarely notice. It helps illuminate the night, thus providing safety and security for citizens. But the fact that streetlights are everywhere and are the perfect height to ‘look down’ on the streets and sidewalks below means that they can contribute so much more to the city than just light.

In San Diego, they decided to replace 14,000 streetlights with not only improved lighting but also a cellular network and sensors, thereby creating the largest municipal internet of things platform ever. Cameras, microphones, environmental sensors, all in one neat package. “The humble street light is now one of the most powerful sensing devices for civic learning that has ever existed,” says David. Some of the many uses are traffic congestion management, improving pedestrian safety, and parking optimization. 

Gathering data is important for civic innovation because it allows city officials to make data-empowered decisions. Data tells the city where it should invest money and can validate whether past money was invested properly.

Changing Bureaucracy from the Inside

Bureaucracy is not known for risk-taking. In fact, it is more known for regulations, restrictions, and lockdowns that prevent innovation. David mentions that to really change our cities, we have to shake that up, and that means “we have to change things from the inside.”

Getting help from outside innovation partners allows the city government to get ideas that they may not have (and possibly would never have) thought up on their own, for these outside partners are the true disrupters, not those within the bureaucracy itself. But truly embracing and implementing the ideas of disrupters means that the bureaucratic mindset has to change—departments and city officials have to be okay with taking risks and even accept the possibility that certain pilots will fail.

“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David. This requires a mindset shift and also a different way of viewing and operating the city.

Co-Creating With Outside Partners

As mentioned above, civic innovation requires the city to partner with individuals and entities that are true disrupters. “They’re the ones that are willing to push the hardest and the furthest, the ones that are willing to try new things and put themselves out there,” says David. While civic innovation happens within the bureaucracy, it must happen in collaboration with startups, academics, and others who have different visions of what a future city may look like. 

For example, David reflects on the changes that have come in the “last mile” transit within San Diego. Light rail and buses take people downtown, but how do these people get to their end destination? Bike share programs were once popular—first docked bikes, then dockless bikes. Now many of these bikes are gone because e-bikes and scooters showed up and have become popular with citizens. The government did not think of these last-mile mobility solutions—the private sector did. However, by embracing these solutions from startups and creative companies, a crucial urban mobility challenge is solved, and the city also reaps benefits such as less pollution and congestion.


“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David.


Another example of partnering with outside parties has to do with solar panels. David recalls that the system for getting a solar panel permit used to be clunky and time-consuming. To improve this, San Diego decided to take a big risk and eliminate the front-end process, essentially relying on the private sector and engineers themselves to self-certify. By taking the government out of the process and “letting industry do what industry does best” solar panel permits skyrocketed, and the city has been able to benefit from less fossil fuel usage and less pollution. 

Co-creation with innovative partners—coupled with the bureaucracy’s shift to becoming more accepting of risk—helps civic innovation flourish.

Engaging the Community

For civic innovation to happen, citizens, themselves must also be part of the process. Younger generations have higher expectations regarding technology and the efficient delivery of services, expectations which are pushing the city to come up with solutions and make the city a more convenient place to live. But successful implementation and adoption require buy-in from the community, and so San Diego has tried many strategies.

One is their open data policy, where all data sets are out there for people to view and play with. Another is transparency. The city seeks to be transparent about what they’re deploying, so citizens understand not only what is happening but also why. For example, before installing sensors on the streetlights, San Diego sought fun and engaging way to bring the community into the conversation. Instead of doing a boring survey, they held a block party. “Basically, we told people to come co-create with us,” says David.

Another example is an app the city created called Get It Done, and which David says “harnesses the awesome power of grumpy people.” The app allows residents to report problems they see in the city, including broken parking meters, potholes, abandoned vehicles and even poop on the sidewalk. How it works is that the request comes into the department, the person who reported the problem gets a message back acknowledging the request and giving a window of time for it to be fixed, then after the problem is fixed, the resident gets a message that it has been fixed, along with a photo proving it. David says that this app increased civic engagement and creates positive interactions with the city. It also saves money and helps residents feel that they have a more responsive and agile government.

Moonshot Ideas 

David says that although San Diego is focused on “doing practical, pragmatic civic innovation” the city also goes for moonshot ideas. “Cities are piloting some of the most amazing ideas that are moonshot,” he says. 

What does David mean by moonshot? As he explains it:

“What do the CAT scan, baby formula, dust buster, computer mouse, memory foam, headphones, selfie stick, and digital camera all have to do with each other? They would not have existed without the space program. All of those things, the fundamental technology for them, came from our desire to go into space and go to the moon. So when you talk about a moonshot, these are the types of things that can come when you set your sights high and then see what innovation can follow.”

San Diego’s moonshot ideas are tied to their climate action plan, which includes 100% renewable energy, 90% diversion of waste from landfills, and 50% of single-vehicle trips changed to walking, biking or alternative modes of transportation. 

“This is really our moonshot,” says David. “And it’s driving a lot of our work. Ambitious big goals that are going to change the way we end up living.”

“What we’re doing in cities is life-changing,” adds David, as he reflects on the civic innovation work being done in San Diego and in other cities around the globe. “LIFE because of quality of life and the way we live. We’re not accepting the same old dirty, polluted, annoying, terrible way of living in our cities. And CHANGING because innovation is powering the next version of what our communities are and can be.”

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation, from John Warner, Head of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry

“He creeped me out,” John Warner recalled, as he recounted his first encounter with Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation and one of the greatest inventors in U.S. history at the time. 

It was 1986 and Edwin had just phoned to request a meeting with John Warner, one of the world’s brightest medicinal chemists. “John, I’ve been following your career,” said Edwin over the phone. “I remember when you were at the National Academy. I remember you on the cover of Celebrity Magazine. Let’s have lunch.”

“I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a stalker,’” said John. “I told six people where I was going and when I’d get back.”

“So I go and have lunch with this guy, and at lunch, he offers me a job to head exploratory research at Polaroid. I’m 24 years old. I say ‘Dude, I’m a medicinal chemist.’ I had two academic appointments already. He told me how much he wanted to pay me, and I said, ‘When do I start?’”

This is just one of the many big moves John has made in his fascinating career as an innovative chemist pioneering the concept of green chemistry across the globe—and the lesson for budding entrepreneurs is that you too cannot be afraid to pivot at the right time.

A musician turned chemist, John worked on cutting-edge pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the lab at Princeton, spent 10 years doing exploratory research for Polaroid, then 10 years as a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts, and finally left that position to form the Warner Babcock Institute, an invention factory where he and his 25 colleagues put green chemistry principles to work to create new molecules, substances, and technologies that are better for human health and the environment. 

Together John and his team have made breakthroughs in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals and oncology to material science and consumer products. In the process, John has uncovered some interesting realities about the process of innovation. If you too are looking to make an impact on the world with your great ideas, here are three things to keep in mind.

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation

Check your preconceived notions about innovation at the door. With these lessons, John gives us insight into the ugly truths of innovation.

Lesson 1: Innovation Can Seem Obvious

Innovation Can Seem Obvious Image

“Lying in bed the night of his funeral, I’m asking myself, ‘I wonder if something I touched in the lab caused my son’s disease?’” John’s son, who was two years old, had just passed away from biliary atresia, a rare birth defect with an unknown cause. 

“At this point, I’ve probably synthesized over 2,500 new molecules, and I realized I have never been taught what makes a molecule toxic. I’ve never been taught what makes a molecule a hazard. For years of undergraduate, three and a half years of graduate school, I had never had a discussion, never had a seminar, never had a class, never had anything to talk about how you anticipate negative impacts of chemistry on human health and the environment.”

This eureka moment, plus a chance encounter with Paul Onassis, an old friend who now worked for the EPA, led Paul and John to write the revolutionary book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Except John admits that the book wasn’t radical at all. “Anyone could have written this book; there’s nothing amazing about this book,” he says. “You’re waiting for something that should say ‘Wow, this is something!’ but it’s just so obvious. Sometimes it’s the obvious things that escape the attention.”

The ugly truth is that innovation can actually seem pretty basic and obvious. The things we take for granted and which escape our questioning eye are those that show the greatest potential for innovation.

Lesson 2: There’s Nothing New Out There

“Where do products come from?” muses John. “We take molecules. We turn them into materials. We call that basic research. We turn materials into components. We call that applied research. We turn components into devices. We call that development. When we do a lot of that, we call it manufacturing. To do this well, what does any organization have to focus on? Performance. Cost. Hey, wait a minute, that was my definition of green chemistry! There is nothing new here. There’s nothing new to the business. It’s just that now we’ve put the environment in the middle.”

Once again, John is humble to say that his cutting-edge ideas on green chemistry are obvious and ‘nothing new.’ But another ugly truth about innovation is that it does not require you to completely start from scratch. The building blocks for inventive ideas are all around you; it’s simply up to you to decide how to arrange them and from what angle they should be viewed.

Lesson 3: Innovation Happens in the Periphery

Innovation Happens in the Periphery image

The projects completed and underway at the Warner Babcock Institute involve everything from life-saving drugs to new materials for construction and paving to an alternative to hair dying that works with your natural ‘hair print.’ John and his team have been able to innovate in so many diverse ways because, as John puts it, “I don’t believe invention happens at the focal point. It happens in the periphery.”

Take, for example, the Alzheimer’s drug that the team has been working on for years in order to reduce the effective dose to minimal quantities. The knowledge gained from that project then led to a breakthrough in asphalt paving. They may seem like two different areas, but to John, they are quite similar – both are organic polymers wrapped around inorganic particles. “A molecule doesn’t know what industry it’s in. If we use the tools of chemistry, we can work on almost any problem, and that’s the magic.”


“It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 


One of the ugly truths about innovation is that it rarely happens when you put your face down and focus exclusively on that innovation. Cutting edge invention happens when you are constantly learning from the world around you and applying that knowledge to seemingly unrelated areas.

“Today, in 2017, I would argue over 65 percent of technologies haven’t been invented yet,” says John. “This isn’t an epic battle between good and evil. This isn’t industry hoarding nasty technologies because they are so profitable. There is a fundamental disconnect in the ability to solve these problems.”

Over the years, society has become more vocal in demanding safer, sustainable technologies, which means that just about every industry is ripe for innovation to achieve this global goal. “It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 

John has uncovered the ugly truths of innovation, which has lead him and his team of scientists to countless breakthroughs—and you can use those same understandings to make innovative developments happen in your industry too. Are you ignoring the obvious? Trying to reinvent the wheel? Reacting to problems instead of coming up with new solutions? There is a better way to construct the future and to illustrate that, John leaves us with this hypothetical scenario: “A big tanker truck is barreling through Cambridge, and it tips over. You can either go get body bags, or you could get a broom. Which would you rather?”

5 Lessons on Entrepreneurship from Victoria Montgomery Brown of Big Think

5 Lessons on Entrepreneurship Featured Image

“His nickname is Roger, so I figured it must be something with Roger in it,” said Victoria Montgomery Brown, who cleverly decoded Richard Branson’s email address in order to pitch him her big idea. In the end, her hunch was correct, and Branson agreed to be one of the first interviews for Big Think, a video knowledge platform that would feature elite experts sharing their wisdom with people who would not normally have access to those experts. 

Big Think was an idea that, until that time, had been scoffed at by others, but after Branson came on board, everything changed. One by one, they all started to fall like dominoes. 

Recruiting elite experts suddenly became simple when you could add the line, “Well, Richard Branson has done this.” And the same concept worked with investors. “The first five investors were pretty notable people,” says Victoria. “We had the notion that if we could get any one of them to invest, somebody else would invest alongside them. It was just like a chess game.” 

Believe in the momentum of your business is the lesson here, and from this wild journey, Victoria has plenty of other lessons on entrepreneurship to share with budding entrepreneurs who have big ideas and are ready to bring them to life.

5 Lessons for Turning Your Entrepreneurial Dream into Reality

Big Think is an online platform that offers short-form video content aimed at sharing ideas and expertise from some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers across disciplines with an audience that typically would not have access to those experts. From an initial idea in 2005 to a popular learning portal today (with 3,000 experts, a public-facing website that reaches 60 million people per month, and a corporate subscription program called Edge), Victoria has over a decade of experience in starting and running her own business. Here are five of her best tips for entrepreneurs who are just starting to work on their great idea too.

Lesson 1: Opportunity Is Sometimes Disguised

Opportunity Is Sometimes Disguised Image

When Victoria graduated, the economy was down. She contemplated going into banking for a year or two then starting a company, but the jobs were hard to come by. She ended up working for Charlie Rose, which was an excellent experience, but it was not what she wanted to be doing after graduating from Harvard Business School.

“When things seem bad, it can often be an opportunity,” says Victoria. What seemed like a failure at the time actually boosted her to move more quickly upon the path of entrepreneurship. Before making the move though, she suggests you start with two crucial elements—come up with a brilliant idea, and identify the people you want to work with. “Finding a business partner and a mission that can sustain even the worst times is the thing that defines Big Think the most.”

Lesson 2: Know How to Network

One of the first people to invest in Big Think was a connection that Victoria had from Harvard Business School. Getting money is tough initially because no one wants to be the first to put in. Having a connection who was willing to take a huge risk helped other investors feel safer to throw their money into the pool too.

However, Victoria cautions that you have to know the right way to network. This, for here, is one of the most important lessons on entrepreneurship. “I’m of the firm belief that you should be in touch with people that have helped you or that you can help on an ongoing basis, not just when you need something.” People can tell when you are just using them, so be pure of heart in the way you approach people. 

Lesson 3: Ask More from Your Investors

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With Big Think, Victoria says they chose individual investors with the expectation that they were not just going to give money but we’re also going to share their time, advice and expertise. They studied the passions of investors and pitched only to those who had the same core values and beliefs. Assembling the right group of investors has been invaluable to Victoria and her company. Throughout the years these investors have been the best mentors and have coached her through the rough times. 

Lesson 4: Listen to Your Audience

Big Think video interviews are structured to boost engagement, with the expert facing the camera (talking directly to the audience) and the interviewer not shown on camera. They were designed to be engaging on any mobile device, knowing that people use a range of devices to access the internet in the modern era, not just the traditional desktop computer. Most videos are between 2-3 minutes long as well because Victoria and her team found that people have shorter attention spans and so longer content was not as useful. 

Being receptive to the audience is also an important aspect of the Edge subscription within Big Think. These B2B subscriptions are meant for big companies, so when pitching the product, they learn what the objectives of the company are so they can tailor the content to the company’s needs. When organizations express an interest in topics like design thinking, diversity, inclusion and millennials, Victoria’s team looks to expand the video library in those areas. By listening to customers wants and understanding their behaviors, Big Think has been able to provide value that is greater than what you find on YouTube and other competitor websites. 

Lesson 5: The Norm May Not Work for Your Business

When Big Think first launched its Edge subscription program, the norm in the industry was to base the pricing on the number of users who would view the content. However, this means that the more people who use it, the pricing model ‘penalizes’ the company. About two months in, Victoria says they changed the pricing strategy because it was not in accordance with their values. “We believe that as many people in an organization as possible should have access to the content,” says Victoria. The new pricing structure charges based on the amount of content rather than the number of users.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria. A firm belief in her mission to “provide people with knowledge that they can apply to their own work or life to make it better” has propelled Big Think from a big idea with many naysayers to a platform visited by millions each month and used by large corporations to provide ongoing learning in the workplace. Network connections, investors, audience, opportunities and company mission are all part of the secret sauce of success. Take advantage of these golden lessons on entrepreneurship, and you too could bring your entrepreneurial dream to life.