There’s a new style of innovator emerging.
Or quite possibly, a very old style of innovator returning.
For many, the title, “Inventor” conjures images of men standing beside hazardous-looking contraptions in old black-and-white photos. This caricature is a disservice to the enduring tradition of intrepid scientists operating outside the bounds of formal education while exploring and expanding the frontiers of knowledge. With an adventurer’s courage and a scientist’s professionalism, inventors have advanced whole new ways of life with everything from automobiles to medical imaging systems and computers. They’re still doing it with stuff like artificial intelligence and 3D printing. And yet, to the public, inventors are by-and-large mistakenly believed to be a thing of the past.
Professional innovation circles know better.
Innovation is changing. No single R&D unit can house the vast array of expertise needed to rationalize and adopt all the key technologies emerging in one industry and later transforming another. Furthermore, it’s overly risky to test and develop bold new ideas due to the high expense of building novel processes and equipment in-house. For years, the safe play for R&D has thus been to hire single-domain experts who are expected mostly to update established technology using existing tools and equipment. But as R&D leaders often lament at annual IRI conferences, there is a glaring need for more efficient, interdisciplinary approaches to innovation.
Fortunately, the new generation of inventors are breaking down the boundaries of siloed innovation, de-risking and unblocking it in the process. Their stripped-down approach to technical unlocks opens up vast new potential for innovation projects. Always prolific and often skilled at the commercial side of innovation, they prefer to call themselves innovators, not inventors.
But who are today’s innovators? How did they become what they are and what drives them to do what they do? Numerous studies and many R&D leaders tout diversity of thought and expertise as vital to innovation. And yet, scientists are still funneled through narrow academic and career tracks before contributing to innovation with a single-domain-dominant mindset. It takes a certain type to venture off the beaten track. And fortunately, some have found places to go.
Seattle-based Keon Research, an innovation consultancy and corporate co-development partner, is different. They are a shining example of how innovation itself is being reinvented by a new generation of innovators. Mike Manion, PhD leads his team of young innovators, including Amanda Zila, PhD, Melissa Smith, PhD, and Mathieu Larronde-Larretche, PhD, to work with corporate innovation units and meet contemporary expectations with a mid-modern approach.
Creativity is the foundation upon which Keon Research stands. Written on the wall is an Einstein quote, “Creativity is intelligence having fun”. Dr. Manion explains the significance in The New Inventor Community where he discusses what sets his lab apart from the rest. A prolific inventor himself, Dr. Manion believes in embracing creativity to deliver profound solutions with clean IP, robust proof of principle data packages, and clear go-to-market strategies.
“The traditional lab was siloed, with experts working exclusively in their domain: engineering over here, integrated circuiting over there, et cetera,” said Dr. Manion. “Whereas we have a spectrophotometer next to a cotton candy machine next to an ultra pure water system next to a set of power tools.”
His team spans the gamut of scientific backgrounds, which is a good thing because they work together to identify solutions for projects on everything from Human Sweat Monitoring to Tattoos for Livestock, to Color Stabilization for beverages, and more.
Amanda Zila got her PhD in Pharmacology, Melissa Smith has a PhD in Neuroscience, and Mathieu Larronde-Larretche’s PhD is on Process and Environmental Engineering. Each are exceptional scholars, yet none of them chose a career in their “field” so to speak. There is no degree program in inventing or rapid prototyping, Keon Research’s specialty, but each agreed that if there were, they would have earned one. Keon Research serves as their surrogate Innovation University.
“There’s never any judgments at Keon ever,” Dr. Zila said, explaining how frequent brainstorming sessions bring together the team and lets them flex their creativity. “We can ask questions or say any wild ideas that we think of and it’s always accepted with openness.”
Beyond their education and their work together, they share the desire to continuously learn and be inspired by the world around them.
“Our (academic) background doesn’t reflect our knowledge,” said Dr. Larronde-Larretche. “I’m interested in so many things outside of my background. We all have broad knowledge. We got to specialize during our PhD, but it doesn’t reflect all of what we know.
We’re all very, very curious. That’s how I define myself: Curious.”
They credit Keon Research’s innovation-supportive environment to Dr. Manion and his ability to simultaneously foster and focus ideas.
“Because we have such varied backgrounds, our imaginations can go a little wild,” continued Dr. Zila. “He helps us focus it in by bringing it back to what is a good solution for the client, and what will make a good product that can actually be commercialized.”
But can prolific inventing and prototyping be taught? That remains to be determined.
“In order to succeed in (inventing and) rapid prototyping, you need to try wild new things and you need people wired to do wild new things,” said Dr. Manion. “Not all engineers and scientists naturally are. It’s a skill you can nurture, but there is an innate skill to creative technical problem-solving.”
“So, do you like to tinker?”
During job interviews, after Dr. Manion has established a young scientist’s technical expertise, he leans forward and asks almost conspiratorially, “So, do you like to tinker?” He’s learned that is often the most important indicator of an inventive spirit. Sometimes after some coaxing, a young scientist will blush and confess to a long history of geeking out on a technology, compulsively breaking it down and building it back up again.
That’s when Dr. Manion knows he has found someone special. Prolific inventors like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford were united by the love of experimenting, taking things apart, understanding how things work. Everyone at Keon Research is a proud tinkerer.
Tinkering has enabled an elevated form of innovation hacking. Most corporate technical challenges demand solving a problem with which the Keon Research team has little direct experience, and they must proceed with significant time and cost constraints. Their standard turnaround for a prototype is 8 weeks, but some projects have entailed as tight as a 4-week deadline.
Slim timeframes force them to learn quickly and comprehensively. The Keon Research scientists agree that school taught them how to research something thoroughly and quickly. But taking the next inventive step to actually forming a solution requires they go into the wilds a bit and use all available resources. Sometimes it’s looking at patents and dissecting their design. More often, Dr. Zila pointed out, they turn to Youtube.
“There’s a lot out there,” agreed Dr. Smith. “People have crazy DIY solutions and they can be very helpful in getting a starting point for what we do.” These aren’t fully formed solutions. Dr. Smith noted that they normally have to add to the DIY technique or improve upon some detail. But regardless, it allows them to quickly create effective starting points.
Their PhD tracks have also taught valuable lessons in perspective. The deeper one gets into a subject, the more challenging it becomes to see how it operates within its greater context. They don’t often get lost in such detail. The work at Keon Research involves constantly changing subject matter, which demands they think creatively and constantly expand their perspective. Dr. Smith notes that constantly going from project-to-project can be disorienting at first, but it allows them to create better solutions.
In fact, the farther away from their “expertise” they are, the better. Dr. Larronde-Larretche has a PhD in Process and Environmental Engineering, and when the Xinova Opportunity for Point of Use Water Purification surfaced, he thought he could tackle it easily. But he found that he was so close to the topic that it was extremely challenging to think creatively.
“There is a problem and I was taught to solve this problem with this solution,” said Dr. Larronde-Larretche. “But the conventional solutions were not working, which is why they needed the RFI (Request for Invention). It was hard to come up with out-of-the-box ideas.”
Keon excels at putting out-of-the-box onto the table. When working on the Color Stabilization Opportunity, Dr. Zila explained how she took inspiration from a protein that she used during her PhD in Pharmacology to help stabilize the natural colors in beverages. She had never seen anything similar in the related research but because of her unique vantage point, she was able to present a creative solution.
Each member of the team is a unique individual. Their different passions, talents, and histories are allowed to show up in their work.
Dr. Smith looks for inspiration in unlikely places, always keeping her mind open to new ideas, whether they come from seeing something on the drive home or while listening to a podcast.
“I see a lot of things that inspire me outside of work, from listening and seeing things in the world,” said Dr. Smith. “I can see or hear a really off-topic or unrelated idea, but wonder how it can be applied to my solutions.”
Each has their own mental process. Dr. Zila’s background in music and art inclines her to imagine and visualize how something unusual she’s conceptualizing might work. Meanwhile, Dr. Larronde-Larretche prefers to sketch out his ideas in order to experiment with different aspects.
They might always keep their thinking caps on, but their lab coats are removed upon leaving Keon Research and returning to their personal lives. Dr. Zila rides motorcycles and crafts jewelry. Dr. Smith recently bought a cello and is teaching herself a new language. Dr. Larronde-Larretche spends each weekend traveling somewhere new.
All together, the scientists at Keon Research represent a machine of many small parts brought together into an intricate balance of talent and ambition, conformity and creativity, rigidity and fluidity, past and present.
Having really diverse backgrounds and drawing upon them to come up with really creative solutions; that’s what makes Keon, Keon.”
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