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?’”

@JohnWarnerOrg, pioneer in #greenchemistry, discusses the ‘ugly truths’ about #innovation so you can become a pioneer in your industry too!

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. 

Victoria Montgomery of the successful online platform @BigThink shares 5 important lessons that will help you bring your entrepreneurial #dreams to life. #entrepreneur #business

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

individual investors OG

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.

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips on Achieving Ambitious Innovation Goals from New York City CTO Miguel Gamino

4 Tips on Achieving Ambitious Innovation Goals Open Graph

“When I was in San Francisco, we did a big public Wi-Fi project called SFWiFi, and we were at an event talking about it, a big community town hall event at a library,” recalls Miguel Gamino, the former Chief Technology Officer in New York City. “A mother came up to me afterwards, and she thanked me, and she was almost in tears. She thanked me for not just building the Wi-Fi network, but for choosing to leave it on after the library closed.” 

“I think she envisioned this bank of light switches and when we closed the library, we shut them all off and we chose to leave the internet on. It wasn’t really a conscious decision though. The Wi-Fi was just always on.”

@MiguelGamino’s tips for pushing #innovation forward in #NYC can help boost innovation in your #business too!

“I was confused, so I asked, “Help me understand what you are talking about?” She said that her son would sit on the steps of the library after it closed each night to finish his homework.”

“When I tell the story, I still get chills, remembering her emotion. In that very moment, I was proud and ashamed at the same time because at least we had given them an option, but really? San Francisco, the innovation capital of the world. That was as good as we could do? To expect a student to sit on the steps of a public library just to do his homework?”

“We can do more. So when I get really passionate about this broadband thing, its encounters like that really make it sink in.”

Working as CTO under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Miguel (who, in past lives, founded two tech companies and worked as CIO for El Paso and San Francisco) now strives to understand the challenges and struggles of New York City residents so he can apply technological solutions that improve the way they interact with the city. Several initiatives are taking place, in all departments throughout the city, as Miguel also works to achieve an ambitious and important goal: to fight socio-economic inequality by bringing high-speed broadband internet service to every individual in the city—all 8.5 million of them.

With a city budget of almost $90 billion, and 400,000 city workers, the environment is huge, and achieving innovation goals doesn’t always come easy—but Miguel’s experience is proof that it can be done. If you are currently struggling to push innovation in your company or industry, perhaps it is time to take a page from Miguel’s playbook. 

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips for Achieving Innovation Goals

Entrepreneurs in any market can apply Miguel’s winning innovation strategy to achieve cutting-edge breakthroughs in products and services. Here are four of his top tips to reach your company’s innovation goals.

1. State Your Values

state your values open graph

Miguel was looking to move away from his government position in San Francisco when he was approached by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who communicated his desire to use technology as a tool to help improve equity and prosperity for New Yorkers. He was looking to dive into full-scale projects instead of pilots, and willing to fail fast and recover versus going slow. It was an exciting but risky venture, and one of the main reasons Miguel decided to come on board as CTO.

What Miguel discovered was that there was actually a lot of planning that they had put into their digital and smart city movement. The huge city plan was then boiled down into four value statements that are used as a guiding light for technology projects. “Every single one of those things is just as relevant, or maybe even more relevant today than they were four years ago,” says Miguel.

Stating personal, company or city values is the best way to create a roadmap for all future endeavors—guiding principles that are applied to any new project and are the thrust behind any forward momentum. Write them down, and they will be a constant reminder of who you are and what you stand for as you embark upon the path of innovation.

2. Be Bold

A bold spirit is what has lead New York City to achieve such great things in the area of technology innovation. Having not lived there before, this is something Miguel witnessed firsthand within the first year he took the position of CTO. New York has a history of doing big things, and ambition is the norm. That boldness allows Miguel and his colleagues to think big and have conversations that might night happen in other cities. 

When Miguel explains his goal of universal broadband access for all New York City residents, he admits that sometimes people look at him like he is crazy. That is when he reminds them that many years ago, someone had the idea to dig into the ground, set up rails, put an oversized aluminum can inside and then bury it. We call it the subway system today, and in New York City you likely take it for granted, but you can’t imagine the city functioning without it. 

Bold ideas may take time and money to implement, but Miguel hopes that one day universal broadband access will also become commonplace. To achieve great things, you have to think big and act big. Boldness is a requirement in achieving innovation goals.

3. Collaborate

collaborate open graph

One technology initiative in New York City is known as NYCX, which revolves around the notion that the government can do better to engage with industry. As Miguel explains it, “At its core, what this is really about is changing the conversations that we have and the relationships that we have between city government, the community at large, and the technology industry.”

Take the example of autonomous vehicles. Companies spend years working to develop this technology. When it is finally ready for production, they become impatient because they want the tech to hit the streets, but cities aren’t ready for that tech. The way Miguel sees it, the sooner the city can be involved (in a way that the industry sees as beneficial), the smoother the process will be, and the more benefits that will come to all involved.

In New York City they have set up an Advisory Council that is made up of CEOs of giant tech companies as well as community leaders—and these community spokespeople play an important role. To date, no one has been able to successfully get community folks at the same table, in the same rank, as powerful governmental and industry players. Collaboration with the community means that the government can hear the challenges and ideas of everyday residents, and companies can potentially make better products that help solve those problems.

Brainstorming and implementing innovative solutions requires all stakeholders to be at the table. Making sure that everyone is included is one key to successful collaboration.

4. Learn from the Customer

A single mother living in New York City may qualify for a range of programs, including affordable housing, food, and transportation. Having to manage kids and two hourly jobs, plus navigating public transportation and city hall, means it can be quite difficult for her access the services that she qualifies for.

A family living in Brownsville, which has the largest density of public housing of any neighborhood, struggles with the issue of safety. The area is dangerous, particularly at nighttime, and there are no safe common spaces outside. For them, what you see in the movies is reality—you do not go outside after dark.


“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.”


These are just two examples where Miguel stresses that we must learn about the problems that citizens are facing so we can understand and develop adequate solutions. This should not come from guesses or assumptions but from actually talking to the people.

Returning to the issue of universal broadband access, Miguel acknowledges that, “Many of the people that are making these decisions are people who have the luxury of having it.” Since they have a different experience with broadband access, they don’t understand how important it is or what life would be like without it. 

Where are you getting your inspiration for innovation? In-house, or are you actually talking to the customers who will be buying and using your product or service? The best solutions will always come from listening to and learning from the customer.

“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.” When it comes to innovation, this advice is as relevant for companies and entrepreneurs as it is for governments and city officials. Take a page out of the Gamino Guide, and you can push innovation further and achieve even your most ambitious innovation goals.

     

Problem Representation

Problem representation relates to the fact that how we see or conceptualize a problem defines how we try to solve it. Solving difficult, high-impact problems requires finding a representation of the problem that is solvable.

If you are not able to solve the problem that has been presented to you, the answer may be to simply change the problem to one that you can actually solve. In that way, problem representation can hold the key to valuable innovation.

Here’s a great example:

Most people who want to transport a gallon of water from one place to another look for a solution by hunting for a vessel like a jar or a bucket. Their representation of the problem is based on the belief that you need to contain the water in order to move it. But someone else may do the opposite and free the water by converting it to steam. Then they can move it through the air. Meanwhile, any person may solve the same problem by simply freezing the gallon the water and then carrying it as a block of ice without the need for a stream or a vessel.

So the potential solution all depends on the particular problem representation vision.

Invention vs. Innovation: Understanding the Difference

invention vs. innovation

Invention vs. innovation — Many people mistake invention for innovation or believe that every invention is an innovation, but this is not exactly accurate. The key difference to understand is that invention is about the creation of something new, without regard for value.

You can come up with a new idea or product and even secure a patent for it, but that does not automatically mean that it has practical value. Creativity for the sake of doing something different does not guarantee success in the marketplace. If you want to innovate you have to combine inventiveness with a measurable and marketable value-add. Start with identifiable value. Then create an innovation to capture it.

Here’s a great example:

In the late 1800s, people used oil lamps as a means of portable light. They were messy, not very bright and dangerous. The invention of the electric lantern, or flashlight, was an innovation and an invention. The development of an LED flash was also an invention, but not an innovation. It did not create new value, but rather just a new form of the existing value.

The Champagne Principle: How to Turn Your Uniqueness Into a Market Leader

the champagne principle

If you lived somewhere where you made bad wine, would it have occurred to you to make champagne instead? Probably not. But that’s what innovation is: taking sour lemons and inventing lemonade.

Consider the real-life history of champagne. Champagne refers to the chalky soil that was very dry and barren. Most people don’t realize that Champagne is grown in regions that make poor wine.  These regions had grapes that were acidic and perfect for making champagne.  But luckily Dom Perignon found a way to add sweetness and flavor to the poor wine to give it a better taste – but that sweetness made extra bubbles!

Same thing in cognac. That’s why they were the perfect places for the liquors that bear their name.

I toured those regions but didn’t actually realize how innovative they were until I was at a popular champagne winery in New Mexico. I mentioned to someone working there how remarkable it was that they had a winery in the desert area when it wasn’t a great place to grow grapes. The person agreed with me and said that’s why they made champagne. ?

Only then did I realize that champagne and cognac were invented in those regions because they could NOT grow wine. Necessity really was the mother of invention.

The Champagne Principle is about discovering your special resources, your special backgrounds, and your special techniques. From there you gain a unique perspective on your unique assets to present a unique competitive advantage. Champagne shows that adversity can be nothing more than the gift wrap that surrounds a success.

Often times our unique capabilities, strengths or even disadvantages create an opportunity for differentiation and market leadership.

Disruptive Innovation: How It Differs from Keystone Problems

What is the difference between disruptive innovation and solving keystone problems? Keystone problems are the things that must be overcome so that companies who have a nascent technology can actually gain the market through that technology. The rate at which some technologies get better may be faster than what the market needs. Simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability are just some of the barriers to be overcome to steal the market.

Dolby B introduced noise reduction, and made the cassette a dominant technology… until CDs, of course.

Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen who coined the term “disruptive innovation, talks about how IBM had a breakthrough technology when it developed the disc drive. Over time, however, they lost the market to smaller companies.

The potential for disruptive innovation typically emerges when you lack the quality or value to lead the field and gain a superior position in the overall market – but you can adequately serve a small niche. If the niche you occupy continues to grow fast enough and your technology progressively improves, you’ll overtake the leaders – disrupting their established market position. Disruption can come about by accident or through an intentional effort.

Here’s another great example:

Newspapers used to reap major revenues from selling classified ads. Then Craigslist came along and offered consumers a free version of classifieds. In doing so Craigslist disrupted a long-established mainstream market. Craig initially provided his list to friends as a convenience and community service, so his disruption was not really intentional. But after his idea worked he realized its value and began to engage in purposeful, deliberate disruptive innovation.

The Rubber-Band Principle: Using Value to Create Innovations

the rubber-band principle

The Rubber-Band Principle basically teaches us to discover unseen opportunities for value to create innovations that touch our daily lives

The rubber-band principle comes from the story of how Kraft macaroni and cheese originated. James Lewis Kraft, the founder of Kraft Foods, found a salesman in St. Louis who was selling boxes of pasta with bags of grated cheese attached with a rubber band. Kraft knew a great idea when he saw one and started to sell boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937. His company sells a million boxes a day even now.

What I find unique about this story is how it illustrates the principles of innovation in basic terms: technology meets need. Kraft foods had a very advanced technical product when it discovered how to dry cheddar cheese. During the depression, Kraft needed to store and transport cheese easily to make it cheap. What the salesman identified was the value–people wanted a good dinner. He connected technology with value—that’s the rubber band.

Do you want to innovate? Find unseen opportunities to connect the possibilities of technology with the possibilities of delivering value. The sales forces of many companies are out there trying to figure out what is valuable, while their engineers are working in the back on developing technology. Innovation only comes when someone connects the two. Go ask any engineer or designer in a company and ask, “What is the number one unspoken problem of your customers?” Frankly, most engineers couldn’t even tell you the number one spoken question. But salespeople know.

Think of the rubber band as the connection between engineering and sales, technology, and value. Put their heads together and innovate.