Surfs Up to Innovation!

Innovation is all around us. We encounter its results regularly in our jobs as engineers. But, thinking about the concept more broadly for this blog, I was struck by an example from a Business Week article on Kelly Slater.

entrepreneurship and innovation
Image source: BusinessWeek

Now, I’m not a surfer. I swim, bike and run (sometimes all together in mini-triathlons) but even I’d heard of Slater, whom the magazine described as “the world’s best and best-known surfer.” So I had to wonder what he was doing in a magazine devoted to business, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Well, it turns out Slater accomplished the ultimate goal of the surfing community. His quest to innovate led him to make the “near perfect man-made wave.” You can see video of him surfing this feat of modern ingenuity on the BusinessWeek site.

What struck me in the article was the familiarity of his process. It started with the concept to make a perfect wave, 7 – 8 feet, with a much coveted “right break” (why this is so special is unclear from the article, and a cursory Internet search for the answer didn’t help me differentiate why the right break is better than any other kind).

From concept, Slater and his team endured a long phase of expensive and speculative engineering involving prototypes and yes, research labs, to get it right.

Then, he finally experienced the excitement of getting it right — and promptly put it on Instagram.

At every step of the way we could relate to the struggle for him and his team. Even down to the elation and social media sharing of the success — I’ve seen many of my customers’  videos of their products “getting it right.” Although, they’re typically wearing more than swimsuits!

With the case of the man-made wave innovation, as usual, you have the supporters and the nay-sayers. The nay-sayers believe that mechanical waves take away from the exotic nature of surfing. Supporters believe this could open up the sport to resorts, competition in the Olympic games, and expand the sport to places in the world where oceans don’t exist.

All in all, this is not so different than developing a new chemical application. Having pursued his goal through creation, evolution, and refining, Slater has now found an investor to fund and grow the technology. You’ll notice this blog often shares samples of entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s exciting to see innovative minds succeed — whether it’s chemicals or “cowabunga dude” success changing the face of surfing.



Informal Entrepreneurs & Innovation Everywhere


misfit economy

I recently read a book called The Misfit Economy. The non-fiction book, by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, published by Simon & Schuster, looks at innovation from businesses on the fringes of society.  I encountered this book on the way back from traveling to Dubai and London and was drawn immediately to its theme of innovation.  Although the authors look at “out-of-the-box” innovators in the world’s black market and informal economies, it was a perfect read for me when I was feeling displaced by travel.

Clay and Phillips examine the commonalities among Amish camel milk traders, computer hackers, inner city gangsters and more under appreciated innovators and consider what they each have in common with the disrupters at GE or creative minds in Silicon Valley.  You’d be surprised by what they discover, even though there is no LinkedIn network for the underground economy.

One example from the book follows an elite group of people connected with an underground collective called UX (urban experiment).  The group comprises French men and women who have “above ground” duties of work and family that also work to restore the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.  In one audacious move, they worked for over a year restoring a 19th century clock in the basement of the Pantheon — secretively.  They smuggled tools, internet connections, and food through tunnel excavations — for over a year — all without being detected.  For the book’s authors this example showed how informal networks and information sharing can accomplish innovative goals and objectives.

A “legal” example the authors share comes from innovative Amish camel milk traders who used relationship building across networks to address a Food & Drug Administration (FDA) restriction on the camel’s milk.  Working collaboratively the Amish developed a network of associations to bring camel milk to California’s health-conscious consumers and have now successfully placed pasteurized camel milk on the shelves in 40 Whole Food stores.

What is exhilarating about this misfit economy is realizing that there are interesting problem-solvers and innovators in all walks of life. The more you look around, the more you will see “misfit innovation” and “informal entrepreneurs” everywhere.