A Biography of Innovations: Book review

A Biography of Innovations: Book review

I thought to myself when R Gopalakrishnan’s book A Biography of Innovations, landed on my table. The author took the words out of my mouth, as in his introduction to his book, he himself says exactly that. Innovation is among the most frequently used terms wrapped in the adipose of management jargon, he says. Everybody has a view on the subject and seems to write about it.

The book has eight chapters — eight life stages of a human being and eight stages of an innovation, from a concept to birth, its nurturing and finally its commercial use. The chapters flit between concepts and are embellished with incidents and anecdotes from historical events and the author’s own experiences, or the book would have been a pedantic and academic exercise. Metaphors are in plenty. Take this fascinating story about the humble ballpoint, which many won’t even rank as an innovation, so commonplace it is in our lives today. Yet, the ballpen had to fight for a life. John Loud got a ballpoint pen patent in 1888, Anton Shaeffer in 1901, Michael Brown in 1991but none succeeded in bringing the product to market, until Laszlo Biro came long in 1938. “Apparently simple innovations seem to take a lot of time from their conception to adolescence!” says Gopalakrishnan.

While the idea of a ballpen was cogitating in Biro’s brain, it needed an inspirational moment to get the right idea for his innovation. Biro found that his expensive fountain pen would smudge and spread ink on paper. One day, he watched children playing marbles and found it left a wet trail as they emerged from the puddle. That gave him the idea that it could work in a writing instrument. In April 1938, Biro secured his patent and a business deal to produce and sell to a bulk order of 30,000 ball pens from the British RAF, as the fighter pilots needed a writing instrument that would not leak. Such is the stuff of innovations.

The author goes on to make an important point, which in the context of the innovation of the ballpoint pen, and other innovations, is very pertinent. Innovations, says the author, takes longer than many think, quite unlike the journalistic imagery of ‘dramatic and disruptive’ innovations. Innovations have a life cycle, sometime short and often long. A study by a UK think tank points out that the average time from invention to widespread commercialisation was 39 years! Innovations that replace existing products had shorter timelines of 29 years compared to those aimed at new markets, which took even longer at 42 years!

Missing detail
In many cases, the author says, the basic scientific principle was established before a product appeared. For example, he says, the PV cell using selenium was established in the 1870s, but the silicon-based solar cell made its appearance only in 1954. The cathode ray tube was invented in 1897, but it took several years before the TV set came to market. It’s a point to ponder. Why is that so? The inventor cannot understand everything and does not realise the depth of his or her ignorance about what it takes to convert an invention into a product. The human mind is not built to acquire details about every aspect of an innovation.

A Biography of Innovations is a different take on the oft-treaded path of innovation literature. The stories and metaphors the author sprinkles liberally make for powerful reading and allows a reader a more lucid understanding of the concepts he outlines. What does it take to have an idea and innovate. Gopalakrishnan reckons it’s like being a child forever and offers another acronym: CHILD, standing for curiosity, humility, intuition, learning and determination. Now, doesn’t that sum it up nicely!

The author likens the eight stages of human life to the stages of ideas and innovation. How a concept is conceived in the brain (fertilisation) and how this grows into an idea (pre-natal); how the idea is articulated through words and pictures (delivery); the development of the idea into a demonstration prototype (infancy); the refinement of a prototype into a working model (childhood); the product and business model presentation (adolescence); the product competes in the market (adult); it achieves it potential (maturity); the product renews itself to stay relevant (ageing).

The author draws interesting analogies between a concept in the brain and an embryo in a womb, straying into neurological territory. Writing metaphorically about how an innovation is conceived, the writer says a 100 billion neurons in our brain are in a constant state of apparent chaotic activity, flashing electrical signals through a complex wiring. Scientists have found that the more chaotic the neuron activity in the brain, the higher the IQ of the person. “Occasionally, quite magically and mysteriously, these random neurons get highly-organised and fire in harmony; chaotic noise suddenly becomes orderly music, and an idea emerges out of the firing neurons. Having an idea is a random and statistical process but once a concept is born, then they need to be developed into ideas.

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