One key element of innovation success is taking risks. I’ve recently read two articles where major breakthroughs in human health started with innovation risks. The two stories are a great reminder that we need to step up to challenges and look at the world anew to innovate!
In our first case, from Business Week, a chemical engineer named David Whitlock became interested in biology after a tubby date asked him why her horse rolls in the dirt, even in the cool springtime months before the biting insects have even hatched. Whitlock was curious too. So he started reading scientific papers and came across a “bacteria, found in soil and other natural environments, that derives energy from ammonia rather than organic matter.”
Whitlock’s took risks for his research. In 2009, he moved into his white Dodge Grand Caravan to study the bacteria culled from soil that he theorized could improve skin disorders, hypertension, and other health problems. And even he’ll admit there were some times he really smelled while experimenting with his soil-based concoctions on himself.
Still, his innovation risks led to the ground-breaking discovery that these ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) can transform sweat into something more useful. His company now generates almost $2.6 million revenue in cosmetic sprays, shampoos and moisturizers. Microbiomes, “commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space” are now the focus of many new products. The third annual Skin Microbiome Congress, for instance, welcomed established brands such as BASF, Bayer, Coty, Merck, Nestlé, L’Occitane, L’Oréal, and Unilever.
The article is a great example of a single researcher’s drive and creativity. He didn’t shy away from the tough stuff in pursuit of innovation.
An Eye-Opening Innovation Risk
A second recent Business Week article is further evidence that it pays to swing for the fences. The article is about manufacturer W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., best known for the waterproof membrane Gore-Tex, and how its willingness to “take more chances” has led to its polymers being used in corneal implants.
An obsession with a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE, led William Gore to his discovery of the lighter and yet stronger expanded ePTFE. The polymer is now not only used in waterproof wear, but also in air purifiers, dental floss, high-tension ropes, and stents and surgical patches.
Yet the company was stagnating as competitors introduced alternatives. Gore needed to get ambitious again. When Anuraag Singh encountered Gopalan Balaji in a lunch line at a corporate event, the two natives of India, where corneal blindness is a major issue, asked whether they couldn’t do more with their company’s polymer.
Enlisting others, their team sought to modify the polymer to be transparent and light bending in the same way that the human cornea tissue is in our eyes. Their first attempts fizzled and were shelved until a new CEO came to Gore and encouraged innovation risks anew.
With new seed funding to learn more from ophthalmologists, rethink the design, and reconsider their material choices, their team came up with a new prototype. As a sidebar, I have to applaud the hands-on discovery involved along the way:
“We love putting prototypes and materials on the table,” Singh told Business Week. “A typical meeting would involve the surgeon and the engineers ‘all kind of hunched over: feeling, touching, poking at things.’”
The result? An artificial cornea that may help to solve a pressing human health problem in developing countries. The plan is for continued research and testing the first implant in humans in 2020 with the goal of bringing it to market in 2026. With cornea tissue damage the 5th leading cause of blindness this innovation risk could have a happy ending.
Ultimately, these two examples are reminders that we need to look around, ask questions, and listen to our communities to come up with ideas. Then we need to take those necessary innovation risks!