Thursday, September 23, 2010

But Then I Remember John Powell

On a recent Space Show, John Powell of JP Aerospace admitted he was forced to seek patent protection for elements of his upper-atmosphere balloon technology to prevent potential competitors from procuring a patent for HIS technology and forcing John to either stop work or pay his competitor a royalty (this topic comes up about 36:30 into the Space Show episode).  Although John was pleased to have the patent, John was more interested in maintaining his ability to work
on his technology free of interference.

I have been thinking about innovation lately and how to encourage innovation within the New Space Family. The latest innovation research has some interesting implications for New Space. Here is a short summary (4 min) of Steve Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

It really is simple math:

Talk MORE about Ideas (inside and outside the company) +
Talk EARLY about Ideas (and early "hunches") =
MORE Innovation

If an entrepreneur approached me and wanted to start a new space company focused on innovation and expanding the “new space market pie”, the Johnson's innovation research from the video above would direct me to prescribe a culture of openness: open about company plans, open about ideas (especially the embryonic ones), open about company successes, open about company failures, etc. Be as open as possible. If the innovation experts are correct this openness would:
  1. Allow others to stand on your ideas (allowing their embryonic ideas to mix with yours to generate new ideas)
  2. Encourage the openness of other firms (allowing your embryonic ideas to mix with theirs to generate new ideas)
  3. Help the firm solve problems through the free input of outside sources (enlisting free engineering help from weekend warriors and the growing army of semi-retired professionals)
  4. Produce tremendous marketing and loyal followers for the company (positioning the firm as the honest broker putting the interest of the industry before the interest of the firm)
But then I remember John Powell – John was forced to seek patents for defensive purposes. Patents don’t seem very open. Does this mean I can’t share an idea (especially embryonic ideas) until after I have a patent? If the most valuable time to share an idea is when the idea is half-baked, then how could I dare do that outside the company and risk losing the idea altogether to patent-wielding technology poachers. The best time to share the idea is before the idea is complete enough to patent.

Hypothetically, if there were no such thing as patents in the aerospace industry, my innovation firm would be just fine. Their continued competitive advantage would come from out-innovating the competition, utilizing an open exchange of ideas to magnify their advantage, and through open sharing of ideas, helping neighboring firms grow their ideas and the industry as a whole. But then I remember John Powell.

Here is a longer (17min) Ted Talk where Steve Johnson speaks about the value in sharing what he calls “hunches.”

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