Striking Gold in Cross-Disciplinary Innovation

“How do I find my next business prospect, you ask? Oh, all I need to do is talk to people in my network.”

Now, substitute prospect with innovation, investment, distributor, customer, or strategic partner.

Last time, I explained why, from a social science perspective, it’s so hard to venture out of your bubble. Imagine how many unexpected discoveries don’t happen because of this!

Today, I’ll share with you some awesome cases of high-impact innovation across borders from vacuums to Toy Story and nuclear-powered rockets.

Case 1: Vacuums + Sawmills = Dyson

What started out as a personal struggle with the “best-in-class” vacuum James Dyson bought in 1979, turned into a 12,000 person company with $1.4 billion in revenue in 2018. The vacuum James bought didn’t suck up dirt (pretty bad, considering the only other purpose is a paperweight). Being an innovator and designer at heart, James got inspired by … wait for it… a sawmill that used a cyclone of air to separate particles out of the air. Dozens of prototypes and several loans later, James finally got his Dyson vacuum out into the market and beat out his competition, with a superior, sawmill-inspired gadget. But he didn’t stop there. Dyson has also developed novel hand dryers (yea, like this in public restrooms), blade-less fans and heaters, sleek hairdryers, and more recently, ventilators.

P.S. If you haven’t listened to it yet, check out the Dyson Episode on NPR’s “How I Built This” where Guy Raz interviews James Dyson. The whole series is fantastic — lots of genuine interviews with founders of well-known companies about their journey.

Case 2: Computers + Cartoons = Pixar

Alexander Shure founded the Computer Graphics Lab (CGL) in 1974 out of the New York Institute of Technology. Alex and his team of computer scientists, including Edwin Catmull, was to make the first computer-animated film. The team went through a few phases. First, was Lucasfilms, which swallowed CGL whole. In 1986, Lucasfulm then spit out a newly-minted Pixar into the curious, but tentative arms of Steve Jobs. Next up case Disney, at the time, a conservative company, overconfident in its story writing abilities, but sensing that there was an opportunity with computers. After some initial courting, in 1991, Disney contracted Pixar to write, produce, and distribute 3 animated films. And thus, the first full-feature, animated film was born — Toy Story. Many successful movies later, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion deal in 2006, and the world continued to produce fantastic animated films.

P.S. Did you know that Steve Jobs considered selling Pixar off in its early days to Hallmark and Paul Allen?

Case 3: Nuclear + Space = Deep-Space Rockets

Space travel… a vision that started becoming a reality in 1961 when the Soviet Union sent the first human into space — Yury Gagarin. We’ve made some progress since then, walking on the moon (across 6 Apollo missions), sent rovers to Mars, and more recently, SpaceX landed its two reusable Falcon Heavy boosters, unlocking cheaper space flight. Traditional rockets use liquid fuel, specifically a combination of liquid hydrogen and oxygen kept at super low temperatures and high pressure, and/or solid fuel. When the chemicals react, they create exhaust that propels the rocket forward. This approach works for short distances but will just not have enough energy to take the rocket to, say, deep space or for longer missions. Here, we require a technology that’s extraordinarily dense and potent, for example, nuclear power. The first nuclear reactor was commissioned in the US in 1942, as part of the Manhattan project to create nuclear weapons. The space and nuclear communities in the US and Russia (formerly USSR) have been cooperating for decades, actually (since 1961). Nuclear space propulsion has recently come back on the table and will require some exciting international, cross-disciplinary innovation.

P.S. Many of the modern nuclear rocket designs still use NERVA engine designs from the 1960's.

Without disruptive, cross-disciplinary innovation, we would have missed out on those high-tech Dyson vacuums, Toy Story (and all that came after it), and the potential that is deep-space travel.

Now, the question is — how do we allow for all these disparate stakeholders to efficiently find each other to create these breakthrough innovations?

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