Archive for the 'Opportunity' Category

Northrop Grumman, Eastman Chemical: Where to Innovate in this Economy

Point:  “Where” innovation comes from can be a place, a time, or a conceptual process.

Story: At Invention Machine’s Power to Innovate user conference, Jim Belfiore, Senior Director of Client Innovation and Practices, posed the question of where to innovate in this economy. Numerous presenters provided varied and surprising answers about where they find innovation and innovation-related opportunities.

First, “where” can be a literal place.  Mark Atkins, CEO of Invention Machine, discussed research on emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil, and other rapidly-developing emerging markets.  He cited data on the rise of innovation awareness and investment in these countries.  For example, a recent survey found that 52% of executives in emerging markets thought innovation was critical versus only 31% in the US and EU.  The same survey showed that more executives in emerging markets are investing in innovation than are their mature-market counterparts (85% vs. 53%).

The implication: companies should scan and analyze emerging markets for companies that might be disruptive competitors or that might become the company’s new suppliers, new manufacturers, or new distributors for addressing emerging market needs.  By answering “where” with emerging market players, companies can find new opportunities for collaboration.

Second, Dr. Charles Volk, Vice President and Chief Technologist at Northrop Grumman Navigation Systems, showed how innovation can be found in the past — “where” can be a point in time.  Volk’s division makes high-performance inertial navigation systems that enable aircraft and missiles to know exactly where they are, how fast they are moving, how they are oriented in space, and which way they are heading.  The devices represent more than 50 years of technological success, as well as some failures. Failures of the past, however, can be resurrected when new technology advances and obviates previous constraints.  The key, however, is to be able to access the prior work a company has done on a project, to avoid reinventing the wheel.  The challenge gets even bigger given that so many Boomers are retiring, taking past knowledge and lessons learned with them.  That’s one reason why Northrop used Invention Machine’s Goldfire tool to systematically capture and index legacy knowledge from disparate sources and formats.  According to senior scientist David Rozelle, for example, “Extensive efforts were put into feeding all HRG [Hemispherical Resonator Gyro] product-line documentation into state-of-the-art-knowledge base tools, including Invention Machine’s Goldfire system, to allow future engineers easy access to this huge amount of information through queries to the database.”

Third, Henry Gonzalez, Technology Fellow at Eastman Chemical Co, provided an external-source “where” example. Eastman,  a global manufacturer of chemicals, plastics and fibers, wanted to find a new application for one of its existing technologies. Eastman used Goldfire’s Innovation Trend Analysis and semantic capabilities to identify and target likely conferences and papers that could point to an answer. The results? A two-day effort using Goldfire yielded results that took an Eastman engineer 6-9 months to do previously. Eastman engineers were originally skeptical that a tool could help them be more innovative, but they were convinced by the results and are now expanding their Goldfire deployment.

Finally, Belfiore challenged people to look beyond their current S-curve of technology or product adoption to the next curve. More specifically, his answer to the question of “where” is to examine where your current constraints are. Then look to that as “where” to innovate before a competitor does. For example, in the energy industry, hydrocarbon production and supply are a challenge, with the constraints of cost, resources and environment impact. Most alternatives to the energy issue target eliminating hydrocarbon fuels by substituting wind or sun. But these next-generation solutions come with new problems, such as replacing the world’s fleet of vehicles and existing energy-delivery infrastructure if liquid hydrocarbons are no longer used. Joule BioTech, however, pinpointed fuel as its innovation place. Specifically, Joule focused on finding a new way to make hydrocarbon fuel that would reduce dependence on foreign oil and eliminate the carbon footprint of fuel. Joule disrupted the way fuel is made. Rather than start with a hole in the ground to reach fossil fuels, Joule created sunlight-driven bioreactors that could grow artificial microbes that produce ethanol and diesel. The microbes require only sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce ethanol and diesel, thus not only lowering the cost of production but also removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  When the fuel and diesel is burned in the car engine, therefore, no new CO2 is released. And, the fuel is used in the combustion engine just like gasoline, requiring no new infrastructure.


  • Think about all the possible “wheres” of innovation.
  • Look at the past for failed innovations that you can resurrect using new developments or to address new needs.
  • Look at new markets and the new players arising in those markets as a new source, new collaborator, or new point of demand for innovation.
  • Look beyond the current S-curve to create the next S-curve before the competition does.

For more information, on Northrop Grumman’s HRG project, see:

No Comments »Case study, Growth, How-to, Innovation, International, New Product Development, Opportunity, Software tool, Strategy

How to Find Opportunities in Fragmentation

Point: If you’re looking for a new business opportunity, look for individually-fragmented but collectively large areas of economic activity, such as where individuals or small business own a large segment of the market

Story: A business model that connects small businesses and individuals to markets and automates tedious tasks was common to three of 11 new start-ups seeking  funding at Techstars Demo Day August 5, 2010. Here are their stories, followed by six action steps you can take to tap such markets. helps small-scale landlords. These landlords collectively own 30 million rental units in the US.  Rentmonitor offers an online service that automates many elements of the five key tasks that every landlord faces: 1) advertising available properties; 2) screening renter applications; 3) managing maintenance requests; 4) tracking rental payments; and 5) record-keeping for taxes. In exchange for a monthly fee of only $5-$50 (depending on the number of units), Rentmonitor gives the landlord a suite of online tools to manage their properties. Renters also have access to Rentmonitor to submit a maintenance request or make an online rent payments. addresses the needs of vacation homeowners who rent out their properties when they are not using them. Currently, many vacation homeowners pay a 30% to 50% cut out of their rental revenues to property managers. replaces that high-cost property manager with low-cost online services to handle advertising, booking, and housekeeping and maintenance contractors. Although VacationRentalPartner seems similar to Rentmonitor, the two start-ups differ significantly because the needs of ultra-short-term vacation property owners differ significantly from the needs of long-term lease-based landlords. For example, VactionRentalPartner has tools to help fill-in unrented days, such as by promoting off-season rentals to prior guests or with special deals to already-booked renters if they extend their stay to covered the unrented days. VacationRentalPartner also emphasizes the benefits of fast automated responses to booking inquiries. Would-be vacationers expect instant replies from property holders — a less-than-30 second response time to an availability inquiry increases bookings by 200%. targets outdoor advertisers with an auction and listing-based marketplace for the buyers and sellers of billboard space. Adstruc address the fragmentation of national, regional, and local billboard site owners that make it hard for advertisers, especially national advertisers, to find and buy the best billboard sites for a large campaign. AdStruc aggregates billboard sites and provides searchable data on available inventory.  AdStruc gives buyers virtual visits to billboard sites through Google Streetview. AdStruc also partnered with Circle Graphics on the printing and shipping of the extremely large format. AdStruc supports the sellers, too, in managing their inventory. “This-space-available” and obsolete signs represent $750 million a year in lost revenue. With AdStruc, sellers can upload their available spaces, automate sales to approve buyers, and auction off space. AdStruc makes money on a share of the transaction fees as well as monthly service fees for managing billboard inventories.


  1. Look for individually-fragmented but collectively large areas of economic activity, such as where individuals or small business own a large segment of the market
  2. Find the “pain points” in the lifecycle activities of these market participants (e.g., advertising vacant space, vetting renters, researching an opportunity, handling tax records)
  3. Automate these processes and offer an online, software-as-a-service tool suite
  4. Monetize the service with a low monthly fee, nominal share of transaction price, or through ad sales
  5. Connect these small businesses or individuals to large markets (or create them) with automated advertising, inquiry support, booking, vetting, etc.
  6. Help people on the other side of the transaction, too, such as with online booking, online payment, and online management of requests.

2 Comments »Case study, Entrepreneurs, How-to, Opportunity

Invention Machine’s CTO on Open Innovation

Point: When reviewing the ideas submitted to your open innovation portal, identify ideas that have momentum and ideas that are outliers.

Story: Open innovation efforts yield many ideas, often too many to use. So, what’s the best way to manage and make productive use of the ideas you receive? To answer this, I interviewed Jim Todhunter, CTO of Invention Machine, as part of the Open Innovation Summit held in Orlando December 3-4, 2009. I asked Jim about how Invention Machine Goldfire software can be used in open innovation efforts. He described three key tasks to do after you have received a set of submissions from an open innovation effort.

The first step is to organize the ideas into buckets.  Todhunter described how Goldfire speeds this process and reveals relationships among ideas as well. Goldfire uses semantic technology, which means that it’s not limited to finding exact keyword matches when searching or analyzing submissions. Rather, semantic engines understand the meaning of the words, so they can cluster related ideas regardless of the specific terms that users submitted. That’s a useful feature for open innovation, because people often use different terms or nonstandard words in their submissions. Semantic technologies find text that has similar meaning, even if it does not use identical words.

Todhunter illustrated the second step with a hypothetical example. Let’s say you’re a medical device company looking for innovations related to sphygmomanometers (the familiar arm-cuff device for measuring blood pressure). Goldfire will automatically divide your open innovation ideas into different tiers of concepts. Top-level tiers are general concepts and concepts around functionality. Finer-grained buckets under these meta-categories are categories like advantages and disadvantages that your customers see about your product or competing products.  For example, within the “advantages” cluster you might notice that a customer submitted an idea referencing an advantage of a competing product by saying “this other sphygmomanometer doesn’t pinch when people pump it up.” Regardless of the specific terms that a person uses, Goldfire can identify a concept like “pain-free use” and create a cluster of that concept.  If several other people use terms such as “pinch” “hurt” “discomfort” or “squeeze”, then you know that’s a key issue to focus on. Identifying ideas that have momentum helps the company serve existing customers better.

But it’s not just the momentum ideas that have value. In the third step, you identify a different type of potentially valuable suggestion. Specifically, Goldfire looks for what Todhunter called “singularities” — outlier ideas that had very little discussion. Outlier ideas may be worth nothing or they may be the future of the company.  On one hand, the dearth of discussion might mean that the idea wasn’t very useful. On the other hand, that singularity may be next new application that is just starting to emerge. “Singularities represent interesting, unique points of value that may relate to unserved audiences, new applications, new applications of technology, or new pockets of interest that you as a company haven’t served — these can be your underserved communities that create the opportunity for new disruptive market elements,” Todhunter said.

1. Gather as many open innovation idea submissions as possible
2. Quickly bucket the ideas (and parts of ideas) to look for patterns
3. Look for the most-mentioned ideas to find high-priority innovations
4. Also look for outliers to find potential high-value innovations.

For more information:

Open Innovation Summit

Invention Machine

Jim Todhunter’s blog: Innovating to Win


No Comments »Innovation, New Product Development, Opportunity, Software tool

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