Keon Research is not your grandfather’s laboratory. Not that there’s anything wrong with your grandfather’s laboratory, founder Mike Manion, PhD, would quickly rejoin. His lab was just designed to weather today’s interdisciplinary blizzard of rapid innovation demands. Keon Research is less resource-intensive, more agile, and can solve problems across multiple domains cheaper and faster than traditional R&D – and more efficiently than the university technology transfer model–via Keon’s three-tiered approach of: Explore (innovation opportunities), Invent (patentable solutions), and Build (prototypes and products). And they have fun while doing it.
“The main difference with my lab and most others I’ve seen is the variety of stuff,” said Dr. Manion. “The traditional lab was siloed, with experts working exclusively in their domain: engineering over here, integrated circuiting over there, et cetera. Whereas we have a spectrophotometer next to a cotton candy machine next to a ultra pure water system next to a set of power tools. It’s a total hacker mentality. We marry hard core science with that hacker mentality.”
Hacking is a modern term well-suited to modern invention. Dr. Manion recognized years ago that harder problems would always elude traditional R&D’s monoculture approach. Too often, solutions lay outside the single field being plowed again and again despite increasingly fruitless innovation yields. Such a system’s cost of building additional R&D infrastructure to plow new fields is prohibitively high; not to mention inherently hard to identify from within a scientific monoculture.
“Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years–there’s more of a ‘Go for it!’ attitude–but that attitude still persists of, ‘Well, we’ve never seen that so we’re not sure how it will work.” he said. “R&D is safe, incremental, risk averse. So that’s where we bring something special as inventors. We can bring a bit of the crazy in because we’re allowed to. We’re paid to. I love it, even though we still get some pushback.’”
Incremental just doesn’t cut it any more. Traditional R&D models are becoming outdated because they struggle to keep pace with new problems continuously emerging from new technologies and burgeoning societal demands. Dr. Manion found novel ways to get to the prototype stage without having the world’s most expensive cutting-edge equipment and industry experts all under one roof. Just remove the roof; a global network of labs and expertise awaits. If you need expensive stuff you don’t have, partner with those who have it. If you need help defining a problem and developing a solution, brainstorm with smart people unafraid to ask dumb questions.
“There’s an amazing ability to tap into resources now that didn’t exist before,” he said. “A great example of this was when I got chicken antibodies made as part of one of my first IDF development projects, and I never saw a chicken. It cost me a few thousand bucks and a few weeks, as opposed to building a lab that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months to obtain the same results.”
That efficiency bridges the invention-divide between R&D and business, traditionally represented by the product development company. Rapid prototyping makes a pure invention lab like Keon more effective at providing proof of concept because they can do so without spending big bucks. The standard track for commercialization of invention is for R&D to hand off an invention to a product development company, whose designers then spend a great deal building a slick prototype without having necessarily established proof of concept.
“Our mindset is all about figuring out what is the quickest, the easiest, the best way to get to the answer,” said Dr. Manion. “What we do is pure invention, which includes prototyping. They might not be pretty prototypes, but they’re functional enough to prove the invention.”
Ultimately, the new invention lab also serves as a beacon for the aspiring new inventors, who by definition exist outside the three standard inventor archetypes. First, as mentioned earlier, Dean Kamen represents the rare-but-iconic Edison-style inventor. Then there’s the backyard inventor, which includes every taxi driver Dr. Manion has ever met. And then there’s the startup innovator, who invents around a specific domain utilizing their technical expertise to commercially develop a product.
But a fourth inventor class—or, perhaps, community–seems to have emerged: the professional problem solver. The new inventor. And now they have a place to tinker.
If you found this article interesting, check-out “A day in the life of an inventor” by Michael Manion.
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