Crossing the Rubicon into pure invention is such a radical move that it’s popularly considered the domain of mad scientists. Instead, the beaten path to innovative prestige is to become an expert in a single field. These industry experts then dominate R&D. And that’s bad for innovation.
“Intractable problems are often intractable because you have the industry experts trying to solve them,” said Dr. Michael Manion, PhD, founder of innovation consultancy, Keon Research in Seattle. “When you’re an industry expert you can’t have crazy ideas: you need the solution, the best idea in one go, not 10 things that may or may not work. Invention is about being prolific and working to find the best solution, rather than being married to one idea.”
Dr. Manion and his colleagues signify an inflection point in the new inventor movement. Without an occupation box to check on their tax returns, they’ve charted their own courses away from the university tech transfer office and through undefined and constantly shifting innovation landscapes- one grant, one patent, one startup at a time. They have had to re-learn the lost art of invention and adapt it to today’s economic constraints by innovating outside the box.
“Tech domains are different as far as which ones better prepare people with invention skills for experimentation and dealing with failure and trying new things,” said Dr. Manion. “Like in computer science: they are fine with riding the wave of evolving technology. But in chemical or mechanical engineering, they are taught: ‘This is the way, and that’s it.'”
Growing up between Australia and the USA, Dr. Manion’s journey to becoming a prolific inventor, invention consultant, and entrepreneur began unassumingly on the standard academic track. First, he obtained a PhD in Physiology and Biophysics. Then he enrolled in the Technology Management MBA program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business whereupon he ventured onto the then-unbeaten path of technology commercialization. Studying intellectual property, patenting, and commercialization strategy revealed to him a thrilling new dimension of science and technology.
Invention, he realized, did not occur in a scientific vacuum. The basic technology had to work, but it also had to be adoptable, to satisfy economic and production constraints, as well as offer a competitive advantage. Also, in order to be commercially viable, the Intellectual property needs to be defensible and tradeable, typically by securing rights through patenting, trademarks, design registrations and so forth. Otherwise, even good technologies would quickly sink beneath the economic demands of production and sales.
“Now it’s a standard track, but back then it was pretty radical when I went into the world of commercialization,” said Dr. Manion. “There’s no degree program offered in inventing. I wish there was. There should be. As scientists, we’re taught to think as technologists, which is compartmentalized and focused purely on the technology itself. But then you learn that in reality there are more factors to invention than just the technology.”
In lieu of a PhD in inventing, Dr. Manion linked up with Xinova in its former iteration as Invention Development Fund. There was instant synergy. Dr. Manion saw that Xinova was rearranging the landscape of invention in a forward-looking manner with its novel define-problem-then-create-solution approach to customer-driven invention. This was a profound departure from the university technology transfer office’s backward-looking-and notoriously inefficient–model of licensing university patents. And it constituted a viable path towards inventing as a full-time profession for him and other scientists aspiring to break the mold into inventing.
“Xinova, if scaled, is something really revolutionary,” he said. “Before, the model was to talk to inventors, see what they’ve invented, and try to find a home for it. This is inefficient. I had 150 invention disclosures a year from my faculty at university, of which 10% were pushed forward to patent applications and trying to obtain a license. I probably got one or two licensed out of that and maybe one startup. There’s such a low success rate because you’re pushing inventions: you’re inventing in a bubble and then guessing if it’s what people want, if it’s meaningful. Meanwhile, there are company technology scouts looking at what’s out there in the world, but they rarely find a perfect match with what’s available. So often there is a mismatch between market supply and demand.
“This has been the way that new technology transfers from inventors to companies, and it’s incredibly inefficient. The value Xinova creates by taking out that inefficiency in the market can be completely revolutionary. There will always be hits and misses and failure and stuff that goes through that isn’t perfect. But now you have companies coming to inventors saying, ‘Please invent this for us.’ Doing it the way Xinova is doing is completely new. That’s why I’ve been doing what I can do to create as much value to help build it up.”
Read Part II – The new inventor community
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