It’s Time to Bury the Idea of the Lone Genius Innovator

11 April, 2016 / Articles

When Alexander Fleming, a brilliant but sometimes careless scientist, returned to his lab after a summer holiday, in 1928, he found his work ruined. The bacteria cultures he had been growing were contaminated by fungus. As it grew, it killed all the colonies it touched.

Most people would have simply started over, but Fleming switched his focus from the bacteria to the fungus itself. He identified the mold and the bacteria-killing substance, which he called “penicillin.” Seemingly in a single stroke, Fleming had created the field of antibiotics.

At least, that’s how the story is often told today, and that telling meshes with how people see innovation: a single, simple observation, a flash of brilliance, and — eureka! — a new world is born.

The truth is messier.

It wasn’t until 1943 that penicillin came into widespread use. Why did it take so long for the miracle drug of the 20th century to make a measurable impact?

When Fleming published his results, in 1929, few took notice. He was not a chemist and was unable to study penicillin in any detail or synthesize it into a workable compound. Put simply, Fleming didn’t have the requisite skills to engineer his discovery into a practical solution to the problem of disease. So instead of changing the world, the world’s first antibiotic remained buried as an obscure finding in a scientific journal.

It wasn’t until 1939, a decade later, that Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, came across Fleming’s paper, immediately understood its significance, and developed a method to produce penicillin in quantity. They began experimenting on mice, and eventually on humans, and saw incredible results. It was clear that this new drug had the potential to transform medicine.

Yet to make a significant impact on the world, penicillin had to be produced in massive quantities, something that was far out of the reach of two research chemists. Florey reached out to the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided further funding to develop new fermentation methods so that the drug could be mass produced.

By 1943, with World War II raging, the U.S.’s War Production Board enlisted 21 companies to produce supplies for the war effort, saving countless lives and ushering in the new age of antibiotics. This finally gave the drug the scale it needed to have a real impact. In 1945, Fleming, Florey, and Chain received the Nobel Prize for medicine.

Take a look at any significant innovation, and the myth of the lone genius and the “eureka moment” breaks down.

First, a big idea or a new discovery is never enough. For any innovation to have an impact, there needs to be a discovery on an important insight; a viable, scalable solution; and, finally, a business model that allows the new idea to be adopted.

Second, geniuses rarely act alone. Fleming’s pioneering work on penicillin not only was supported by Florey and Chain but also built on the work of earlier scientists, such as Ignaz Semmelweis, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. Moreover, the science would never have found its practical application without support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. government.

And consider that although government support has been instrumental in both medical breakthroughs and technological developments, such as the internet and GPS, the vast majority of innovators have to stumble ahead on their own when it comes to innovation’s final step: figuring out the business model.

That was exactly the problem that Chester Carlson, a very different kind of innovator, had to overcome. He worked for years tinkering with his invention, even while holding down a day job and going to law school at night. When his wife got tired of the explosions he made mixing chemicals in the kitchen, he moved his work to a second-floor room in a house his mother-in-law owned.

After more than a decade, he teamed up with the Haloid Company, whose product was superior but cost nearly 10 times what competitive machines did. They tried to interest the great companies of the day — Kodak, IBM, and GE — but all demurred. There just didn’t seem to be a value proposition that would justify the cost.

Then Joe Wilson, the president of Haloid, had a billion-dollar idea: Instead of selling the machines, why not lease them? The idea took off, and the company we now know as the Xerox Corporation was born.

And while Carlson’s product innovation was scientifically brilliant, it required Joe Wilson’s business model innovation to create an impact on the world.

So while we sometimes like to believe that some people are innovators and others are not, the truth is that everyone has a potential role to play: scientists and engineers, marketers and accountants, salespeople and production specialists. That’s why we need to treat collaboration as the ultimate competitive advantage, especially today, when the problems we need to solve are so much more complex than in the past.

And that means we need to radically rethink how we approach innovation. First, as the authors of Collective Genius point out, we need to create a culture that inspires teamwork rather than just individual accomplishment. Great innovation happens when a diverse set of skills are integrated to effectively solve problems.

We also need to rethink organizations themselves. In recent years, we’ve seen a new breed of innovators, such as the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at MD Anderson, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory, and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, that bring together government, academic institutions, and the private sector to solve our toughest problems.

It’s time to put away the old myths about lone geniuses and eureka! moments. Truly breakthrough innovations are not a single event, nor are they achieved by one person, or even within a single organization. Rather, they are when ideas combine to solve important problems.

The scientist and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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