Technological disruption is shattering all those truisms we’ve held on to for so long: Social media has cast new meaning on the phrase, “A stranger is just a friend you’ve never met.”
The explosion in cryptocurrencies has made expressions like “Another day, another dollar” somewhat antiquated.
And if you’ve been holding any Bitcoin of late, the last few weeks have been a deluge of cyber wealth.
But here is a truism that seems impervious to all this technological disruption: “You can’t capture lightning in a bottle.” We generally understand this to mean that genius can’t be shackled and turned into a process. Brilliant ideas will happen on their own, not pulled from the mind under duress.
Yet there is a growing community of entrepreneurs and academics who think that genius can be distilled into a process. What if lightning could be captured in a bottle? What if the exasperating pursuit of breakthrough ideas and technologies could be distilled into the push of a button or an act as simple as scrolling through an app like Instagram?
Of course I am oversimplifying this a touch, but the concept is one that is actually attainable, according to technology transfer expert Clifford Gross whom I caught up with the other day on the phone.
Innovation is driving companies to look outside their interrnal R&D teams, said Gross, who is the founder and CEO of Tekcapital, a University IP company. “There is only so much creative production that can be demanded from a finite number of people,” he said. “In the end, companies will find that the vast majority of innovation taking place in their industry is occurring outside of their own four walls, however advanced their innovation system.”
Acknowledging that most of the innovation happening in the world is taking place outside of the confines of your company will not be particularly meaningful for that company unless you have some way to harness it. Now, thanks to technology, you do.
Crowdsourcing, the process of relying on large, unstructured groups of people to create a single, structured outcome, is being applied to numerous tasks with great success. From Kickstarter to Mechanical Turk, we’re seeing the power of harnessing groups of minds to accomplish big things. Now, businesses are working to harness the crowd to expedite innovation.
Recently, for example, General Electric launched GE Fuse, an open-innovation platform that seeks the input of engineers all over the world to solve technical challenges.
“The ultimate goal is to accelerate product and technology development,” Amelia Gandara, community leader at Fuse, told Forbes. “This is truly a community of curious minds eager to apply their technical skills to a project that challenges them as engineers, scientists and problem-solvers.”
By leveraging the resources of the crowd, the amount of brain power being applied to any given problem can be exponentially increased. In the case of GE, the problem itself is determined by the company, at which point the crowd begins to work on it. But for many entrepreneurs who do not have the resources or funds to organize their own “crowd,” it is better to see what good ideas the crowd already has.
To do that, entrepreneurs need to find ways to gather, collate, and disseminate breakthroughs.
“Of the 15,000 research institutions in the world, about 4,000 produce 80 percent of the world’s new university IP,” Gross explained. “By leveraging a search algorithm that surfaces new research coming out of these institutions, it is possible to disseminate the biggest technological advances in the world in near-real time.
“The ability to capture new innovations from the university knowledge pool and make them accessible to the corporate world is essentially ‘innovation-as-a-service.’”
Innovation? It’s always been an arms race. Since the time before Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla battled over the right to take electric-current technology to market, entrepreneurs have been scrambling to stay ahead. In the 20th century, companies spent billions of dollars on sophisticated R&D departments.
More recently, acquisitions have become a central part of staying ahead. Capturing innovation from the crowd is now streamlined enough to become a part of any company’s survival kit. But because there is no finish line in the race to get ahead, we can expect innovation-as-a-service to continue evolving.
Manesh Nair, writing for Entrepreneur, explained it this way: “Ninety-five percent of startups fail within their first year due to lack of any new ideas,” he wrote. “So, clearly, every startup needs to make innovation a part of its DNA, if it wants to get ahead of competitors and retain that position.”