Innovation Sideline

One of the things I've taken on since I retired 18 months ago is work as a consultant with my brother, Cliff Edwards, and the company he co-founded, Envisioning Labs. Cliff himself is a pretty exceptional guy. In addition to being generous-hearted and easy to get along with, he has been hugely successful doing freelance innovation work. His company now harnesses that ability to find contracts to test out new ideas. Ostensibly in engineering, they have broadened their focus to include projects more geared towards social innovation as well as physically demanding challenges.

During my career as a research scientist, my success rate at getting grants was relatively high. Typically in academia, in the area I worked, success rates were about 20%. I managed something closer to 35%. Since joining Envisioning Labs, however, my success rate in this new area is still low - less than 20%. None of the four projects I took the lead on were successful, although we are still waiting for news on one of these. I did take part in several other projects, however, which did lead to second-stage applications, some of which we are still following up. One of these used an idea I came up with as its central focus, so the news isn't all bad.

The process for these projects is very different from that used to obtain grants, although still on the same spectrum as type of work. Grant applications require broad and extensive understanding of the targeted discipline. You have to understand where the problems are, as well as what methods are typically available to address those problem areas. Eventually I discovered that if you developed new methodologies, especially well validated ones, you could reliably get grants to extend that work or apply the new methods to areas to which their application could defensibly generate new results. I also worked on developing new theory. New theoretical understandings often open up whole new areas of inquiry. Eventually, for very large team grants, I proposed new ways of organizing and carrying out research, based on my extensive experience working at the boundaries between disciplines.

Responses to innovation challenges tend to be far more narrowly defined and framed, however. Whereas breadth of understanding served me well in grant applications, here although that helps as background, what is needed is the ability to hone in on practical solutions to the problems posed. These solutions maybe highly creative, but they have to address directly the specifications given in the problem posed. The skill set is different. It is fun to learn a new business though. Hopefully, I will get better!

It’s already been a wild ride, though. I went from working on tiltable solar energy collectors, to designing autonomous roving vehicles for NASA (see figure above) based on steampunk-style clockworks, to suicide prevention apps and onto retrofitting earthquake resistant foundations for cheap third world housing. Also looked at recycling scrap metals, extracting heat from underground water, assisting Post-Covid tourism, and designing toilets for space as well as the third world. Amazing teamwork, too. And all that on top of my writing projects and fashion design initiatives.

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