Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Don’t invest in ideas, invest in people with ideas 16 – rethinking innovation and innovators 2

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 18, 2015

This is my sixteenth installment in a series on cultivating and supporting innovation and its potential in a business, by cultivating and supporting the creative and innovative potential and the innovative drive of your employees and managers, and throughout your organization (see HR and Personnel – 2, postings 215 and loosely following for Parts 1-15.)

I started at least relatively systematically discussing innovators per se in Part 15 of this series, by dividing them into two porous groups, where single innovators can remain largely oriented one way or the other throughout their career, or can switch roles between them and even repeatedly:

Initial catalyst innovators, who come up with disruptively innovative new ideas and who take at least the first steps into developing practical, realized products out of them, and
Follow-through development innovators, who primarily serve to refine and improve, facilitating the turning of those initial ideas with their potential, into realized marketable, profitable sources of value. And these innovators evolve and improve once-disruptively innovative product ideas and approaches to keep them competitively viable too.

And I followed that with a brief and highly selective discussion of each of a series of what began as disruptive innovations, ending that by noting that I would complete that discussion thread with one final example: the initial discovery of penicillin as a disease curing wonder drug. I am going to do that but before turning to that case study example, I am going to at least briefly return to reconsider my first example from my Part 15 list: the development of the electric light bulb and more specifically of the electric light bulb filament as a practical innovative product.

I wrote in Part 15, about how Alessandro Volta discovered in 1800, that it was possible to produce light by passing a strong electrical current through a wire. Then I wrote of Thomas Alva Edison as an initial catalyst innovator when he started with this finding in 1878 and developed it into the invention of the first practical electric light bulb that could be inexpensive enough for common and widespread use. I just finished noting that follow-through development innovators take already established products and their underlying ideas and develop next evolutionary step refinements to them. Why do I refer to Edison as an initial catalyst innovator rather than as a follow-through developer in this?

Volta never really went beyond proving that it was possible to produce light this way as a phenomenon and as a demonstration of a scientific principle. He never even really began to develop this principle into a realized practical new product. Granted, he faced what in 1800 was an insurmountable barrier to further development there, from the fact that supporting technology, and product and industrial capability had not been developed yet that would make it possible to build an electrical supply infrastructure that would be needed to power wider use of electrically generated lighting. But the point here is that he never really began to take any such steps, and either for developing practical electrical lights themselves, or a power grid needed to make them work.

Edison started with knowledge of basic established scientific principle, that electrical current could produce both light and I add heat as well. And he systematically turned this into a practical product that could quickly become a basic essential in daily life – in effect redefining what “daily life” even means by making it possible to in effect turn night into day – and in ways that candles and oil lamps never could. So when I write of innovation here, that can mean discovery of new underlying science too, and discovery of even relatively fundamental scientific principle. But I focus on the practical and on turning scientific discovery into practical product invention.

With that said, I turn to consider the discovery of penicillin. And I begin this by noting that Alexander Fleming did not discover that sometimes one type of microbe could be observed to kill other types of them. And there was already ample evidence to support the assumption that these microbes produced and secreted compounds that were toxic to competitors for the food supply that they were growing on.

The basic story of the discovery of penicillin as a drug is well known, and certainly in its apocryphally simplified form. Fleming was a physician scientist who was trying to develop new ways to combat infection. So he grew out pathogenic microbes on Petri dishes until the top surface of the nutrient medium in them was covered in a mat of bacterial growth, creating clouded surface coverings. His goal was to test specific chemical compounds on them with hope of finding ones that would kill those bacterial cultures but without being toxic to people too.

This laboratory method for growing out cultures has to be carried out with great care, and under conditions where only the microbes that you want to grow on a given Petri dish, or culture plate get onto it; when unwanted mold spores or other contaminants get onto the growth medium in one of them, they grow out too and you get a mess, and often with very readily visible growth of the unwanted intruder organisms outcompeting what you were actually trying to grow. Fleming almost certainly saw that many times, as does everyone who grows out bacterial cultures in this way. He also saw something else: culture plates that grew out and that looked to have been contaminated, but instead of seeing clumps or coverings of odd-colored contaminant growth, he saw small round voids on the nutrient medium surface where the bacterial growth he was looking for had been stopped, and the bacterial in those patches killed. And he went on to identify the cause of this to be contamination with a very specific microbe: the fungus Penicillium rubens. And he discovered that a specific chemical compound produced by this organism, that it secreted into the surrounding growth medium, killed off the pathogenic bacteria that he was trying to grow there that came into contact with it: which we know as penicillin. And after purifying enough of this compound to begin to test it as a drug, he found it to be effective in killing a range of types of bacterial infections in people, but without being toxically dangerous to those people too.

As a side note to this story, I add that one of my grandfathers was an early recipient of this then-still brand new wonder drug back when it was still first being developed and used. And it is almost certain that this new medication saved his life. But that is not why I decided to add this specific innovation here to this discussion. Fleming was not the only one who was trying to develop penicillin; he was in a race to get there first. Penicillium rubens produced those voids in the culture medium, rather than areas of overgrowth because it grew so slowly and poorly that it was primarily visible from the effects of the bacteria killing toxin it produced. And one of the great challenges that had to be surmounted here was finding ways to grow out significant quantities of it, and to sufficient concentrations, to be able to separate out and purify sufficient quantities of its toxic protective agent, to try it out as a potential drug.

When penicillin was first produced as a drug, the varieties of Penicillium rubens that were used to produce it, produced such low concentrations of it, as to create a real challenge and even when the fungal organism itself could be grown out in volume. Penicillin is excreted out through the kidneys in the urine of patients who receive it. When this new drug was first produced as a medication, it was so difficult to produce in therapeutic quantities and so rare and difficult to acquire, that literally, any still intact and useful penicillin that a patient peed out was extracted from their urine and reused on them, and on more than one occasion and for a number of these early patients. Fleming was not the only one to have seen this bactericidal effect in a Petri dish and he was not the only physician scientist who was trying to isolate and grow out the fungal invader that was killing those pathogens. He was not the only one trying to purify and test enough of the compound that this fungus produced, to test it as a drug. He was the one who managed to do this first, and some of his competitors were not all that far behind him.

One of them was Dr. William Leslie Bradford. This link leads to an obituary to him that appeared in the New York Times in November 1983, and it does cite his groundbreaking work in developing vaccinations. It does not mention that he was a couple of months behind Fleming in the race to purify, identify and test penicillin as a bacterial infection fighting drug, when Fleming’s success in doing so was announced and the race was suddenly over.

What is the lesson in this, for this posting and series? Innovation and discovery can be as much a matter of timing and yes, of luck in that as anything else. And persistence and a drive to finish getting everything right that has to be completed, in order to achieve a sufficient new product to be able to claim to have gotten there first, can be the deciding points for who is and who is not remembered. And I have to add that part of why I chose this example: penicillin was because I wanted to write something here in memory of Dr. Bradford, of the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester New York. He was among other things a clinician: a pediatrician of great skill and tremendous personal warmth. And he had a large practice as a pediatrician and I and my three brothers were fortunate enough to be included in that. It was when learning about his effort to get there first in discovering penicillin, that I also learned as a side note about how my one of own grandfathers was an early beneficiary of this new wonder drug too.

And as a final thought here and a truly non sequitur one at that, the drug penicillin is produced from a mold of the genus Penicillium. Molds of this genus have in fact been carefully cultivated for centuries – in the production of cheese. Stilton cheese and Roquefort get their bluish green streaks from Penicillium roqueforti, Brie is made from Penicillium camemberti, as are Camembert, Coulommiers, and a variety of French goat cheeses, and in fact a surprising number of cheeses can only exist because of the action of Penicillium species of mold that have been carefully cultivated to grow on high fat content dairy products. People who are sensitive to or allergic to penicillin, the drug, can usually safely eat these cheeses so Penicillium rubens is really an outlier for this group of closely related species. And no one would have anticipated that this wonder drug would come from this type of source, making penicillin that much more of a disruptively unexpected innovation.

I am going to continue the main line of discussion of this posting and of the installments immediately preceding it, with a more detailed consideration of follow-through development innovators, and team and long-term innovative development. And after that I will step back to reconsider the issues and challenges that businesses face when looking for new potential employees who hold significant innovative potential, and the challenge of identifying employees they already have onboard who do too, where that capacity and drive is being wasted in them for lack of opportunity for them to thrive to the full of their capabilities.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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