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Shmuel Ur: Inventing, old & new

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Shmuel Ur, PhD | Xinova InventorPart II of II inventor series

Dr. Ur is the rare breed of prolific inventor who has successfully spanned the traditional R&D model and the burgeoning Open Innovation and Smart R&D movements. Consequently, he has acquired unique insights into what makes a great invention, and how to follow through with its protection and commercialization. 

“I don’t teach people how to invent, I teach them how to make their inventions better.” He continues: “I don’t have a formal process, but I’ve invented so much, and I have so many tricks that I have developed, that I can share those tricks to help improve inventions.”

He took that tack after realizing that simply showing his ideas as examples did not make scientists any better at inventing; it just demonstrated, unhelpfully, how good Dr. Ur was at inventing. He did, however, have a strong sense for good vs. bad ideas. So he focused on helping inventors learn that most ideas aren’t very good, and many good ideas don’t become valuable until they’ve been critiqued and refined over multiple drafts.

Filling the open invention void

After 2010, Dr. Ur left IBM to found his own innovation company. He continues to be, in his words, “a pure inventor,” focusing on all aspects of invention outside of building and prototyping. His reputation from IBM earned him invitations to invent for startups in his native Israel and beyond, often in fields outside his software testing expertise. He found, for instance, that he could apply his software testing know-how in a way no one else was using in the Augmented Reality space.

Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome

“Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome”

“When I see a new technology, I try to figure out why it’s really different from what I’ve seen before and how it could be used to connect to new things in really different ways,” said Dr. Ur. “I am a generalist. I learn about the world and try to improve it.”

Inventing for others is no small feat in a world Dr. Ur says still suffers from the Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome, as famously depicted in the adjacent cartoon. The entrepreneur and R&D worlds are coming to embrace the value inventors add with their unique problem solving skills and creativity, which are more conducive to invention than pure technological expertise.

Objectivity

Dr. Ur learned during his years mentoring inventors at IBM that improving an idea requires emotional distance. This isn’t easy, as inventors typically nurture one or two ideas that become like children, a piece of themselves beyond reproach.

“The First thing I learned as a Master Inventor is that if someone comes to you with an idea, and it’s not a good idea and you tell him that, then he hears that you think he is stupid.” He continued: “Some people can’t get over their idea. Others can, especially if they have lots of ideas. It’s good to work with an experienced inventor who takes his ideas and is open to shooting them down.”

Brainstorming

Brainstorming

Brainstorming: The first step is to create a healthy, ego-free environment to workshop ideas.

This is often seen as the fun part. But for the vast majority, brainstorming is most beneficial in a group setting. The first step is to create a healthy, ego-free environment to workshop ideas. Achieving the right mix of skills and ways of thinking is essential; everyone needs to be willing to share, and to offer and accept ideas and criticism in a nice way. Sometimes people are used to dominating the discussion, having always been the brightest star in they sky they’re from.  So, in the last workshop, the first to introduce himself was a very humble, experienced inventor friend of Dr. Ur’s who owns over 100 patents and invented the 3-D printer. Upon his speaking, the right tone was set.

“Part of my goal with brainstorming is to show lots of ideas are not so good, and you can lose lots of money on a bad idea. I get them to see that by first going through a few brainstorming exercises. The last activity is to get the group to decide if they would buy the ideas of other groups.” In a trusting and productive environment, good ideas are made better, and bad ideas are set aside.

From there, the joy of collaboration is ignited. Israel is one of the world’s most fertile grounds for science, innovation, and entrepreneurship. There’s a great deal of cross-disciplinary talent available within commuting distance of most places, and packing a room with such high-caliber talent can have an extremely positive effect on inventors’ ideas and motivation. This is how new inventors are born.

“I like inventing with other people mainly because it’s more fun,” said Dr. Ur. “I live in Galilee and all of my clients are in Tel Aviv. But I really like talking to people. Some are extroverted, some are introverted, but when we invent together it’s just enjoyable to work with other experts. It’s like if you play music, or basketball, or any other highly skilled profession, it’s great to work with others who do it well.”

Good solutions are the enemy of great inventions

Shmuel Ur, PhD | Xinova Inventor

“When I see a new technology, I try to figure out why it’s really different from what I’ve seen before and how it could be used to connect to new things in really different ways,” said Dr. Ur. “I am a generalist. I learn about the world and try to improve it.” – Shmuel Ur

There is no single attribute or cluster of skills that predict whether a scientist will become a good inventor. But certain perspectives help scientists make that transition successfully: perspective to accept criticism as feedback; grit to move past perceived failure; creativity to try new things; openness to inventing outside one’s expertise; and willingness to work well with others.

But one quality that does not come naturally to many engineers is the ability get past “good solution” to “something totally new.”

“Most people see a problem as just a problem, but obviously for an inventor it needs to be seen as an opportunity,” said Dr. Ur. “Most problems have an obviously good solution. This is what kills invention. Most people can’t get around the fact that it is a good solution. But if you have a good problem and a good solution, you don’t think of a better solution. That is very problematic for most people. Most problems have a good solution but you need to go further to make something that is valuable, something I can sell. Smart people in the world will find the obvious solution and stop there because the obvious solution is usually a good solution. But you must ask yourself: What is a better solution?”

Connect with Shmuel


Dr Shmuel Ur – Bio

Dr. Shmuel Ur (ur-innovation.com) was a research scientist in the IBM research lab in Haifa, Israel for 16 years, where he held the title of IBM Master Inventor. Later, he became an independent inventor (working with the predecessor to Xinova and start-ups). Shmuel taught software testing in the Technion and Haifa University. Shmuel taught, both inside and outside IBM, various software engineering disciplines, giving one-day to one-week courses on the topics of coverage, code review, and testing and developing concurrent software. Shmuel has also consulted with banks and companies as to how to improve their software development process.

Shmuel received his Ph.D. in Algorithms Optimization and Combinatorics in 1994 in Carnegie Mellon University under Michael Trick and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon. He received his Bs.C. and Ms.C. from the Technion in Israel. Shmuel has published in the fields of hardware testing, artificial intelligence, algorithms, software testing and testing of multi-threaded programs. He founded and chaired PADTAD, a workshop on testing multi-threaded applications and the Haifa Verification Conference and was on program committees of many conferences. Shmuel has more than 60 professional publications, more than 95 granted patents, more than 250 patent applications, has sold more than 50 ideas, invented more than 100 patents for customers, and has given numerous talks and tutorials.

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