Malcolm Gladwell is clever.  Anyone who has read his books can quickly deduce this.  However, perhaps what is most clever about Malcolm Gladwell is that he recognizes that cleverness is not necessarily all about being smart.  In fact, most of the truly great things that people get credit for were not really invented by them.  Henry Ford did not invent much truly new, he just was exceptional at making it work together.  Andrew Hargadon had a recent post on his blog about this issue as well, but for every great invention / business / whatever you can name, I can find three people who could probably lay claim at the idea first. It’s not that ideas are not precious, or necessary, it’s just that they are not enough.  Malcolm Gladwell is best known for several books (Tipping Point, Blink, etc.) that take well established ideas from many domains, repackage and add new insights, and make him into an icon.  The fact that most of these ideas are not original Gladwell creations does not diminish his contribution, and he’d be the first to tell you it was not all him.  It’s about putting things together in the right context, with the right people, and sometimes the right business model.

This simple insight could be pretty influential for those who seek big ideas.  Be an idea harvester, not just an idea creator.

A guy, a girl, and a bunch of their smart-kid save-the-world-type friends from Stanford.  A desire to make an meaningful difference in the world by taking a new and more strategic approach to philanthropy.  Result = Kiva.

Kiva is an organization based on the idea of connecting regular people from rich countries to poor entrepreneurs in the 3rd world directly through microfinance.  Everyone in the U.S. recognizes that pricing and cost of living differences between the U.S. and the developing world are huge, and that the money spent for a run-of-the-mill dinner out at a chain restaurant in the U.S. might be more than enough to start a profitable business in Africa. Sure, banks are normally the primary soumattflannery2rce for loans.  However, banks have rules and systems that often make them unaccessable to regular people in the developing world that don’t need a very large loan.  Thus, micro-finance (very small, short term loans). By giving regular mom-and-pop types from Buffalo, Kansas City, and Seattle the opportunity to make direct loans to entrepreneurs, everyone can benefit.  The basic approach is that Kiva collects loans of $25 from people in the U.S., bundles them together depending on the entrepreneur’s demonstrated need for financing, and then distributes the loan.  The entrepreneur pays back the loan over time (they often have terms of less than a year). Due to the on-the-ground support network and socially supportive environment for loan grantees, the default rate is less than 2%. As the loans are repaid, the original lender gets their $25 back (no interest) and is encouraged to re-loan to another entrepreneur.  Kiva makes the whole process very transparent, easy-to-use, and uses a lot of real pictures from digital cameras to make the whole thing very personal, very fufilling, and very effective.

Sadly, I had not even heard of Kiva until a colleague at Notre Dame passed away very tragically, and his family suggested that people get engaged with Kiva as a tribute to his memory.  As Kiva grows, it has the opportunity to make old models of philanthropy (like generic save-a-child-in-Africa-type campaigns) obsolete and engage a lot of new people in a very business-like approach to international development.  Governments in the 3rd world have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of responsiblity in taking international money.  Perhaps by taking a grass roots, one-person-at-a-time approach to building economies, the results can be jessica_flannery_21more long lasting. This is not straight philanthropy, as the donors get their money back.  However, through such an approach, the same money can potentially go a lot further.  This approach to giving is much more strategic than a simple donor model.

The organization started off as a part-time hobby effort by a Stanford grad and his girlfriend.  Over time, they began to realize the potential, and recruited some of their save-the-world type friends and things really took off.  Now they have been recognized by the likes of Forbes and TIME and have even been featured on Oprah!

Did you know that people who like broccoli likely suffer from a genetic taste defect?

I really believe that genomics will be at the center of most of the big advances in medicine and health over the next 50 years.  How this will emerge, who will control the process, and the details are currently being sorted out. 

One interesting player in a field dominated by pharma companies, universities, and research institutes is 23andme.com.  The for-profit entrepreneurial startup was started by Anne Wojcicki (aka Sergey Brin‘s wife) on the idea of bringing genomics to the masses. Although backed by seriously big hitters, from Google to Stanford, they are catering their products to regular people.  Although there has been much pomp and circumstance around the idea of personalized medicine, this is how personalized medicine very well could look. 

After recently making a splash by lowering the price of their signature ‘product’ from $999 to $399 (due to incredible cost efficiency advances in the processing technology to analyze DNA), they now can much more feasibly reach the masses.  The basic gist of their product is this:  1. purchase the kit, 2. spit in a cup, 3. send the cup to 23 and me, 4. they send it to an outside lab to process, 5. they send you a link with your results.  Most of their company is based around the interpretation and presentation of your personal information in a very stylish, easy to understand format.  Your results provide you detailed personal information about your genome and its clues to your health and ancestory.  The ancestory tool allows you to track (in very raw terms) your ancestoral roots pretty well on the maternal side and to a lesser extent on the paternal side, back hundreds of years or more.  The basis of the health information is single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have been demonstrated in academic research literature to be associated with certain diseases, medical conditions, and abnormalities.  They are very clear that nothing is set in stone, the best they can do is probabilities, and the research is emerging.  Still, they can tell you that you are more likely to have psoriasis, crohn’s disease, and potentially why you might not like broccoli.  In all, there are over 90 conditions they can give you information about, including how well you can smell, your intelligence, and potential longevity.

Critics have called the whole business extremely dangerous and have tried to get companies like 23 and me shut down.  They argue that providing such unproven data to consumers is irresponsible, and should not be allowed.  They show that many of the ’emerging findings’ and disease associations are later debunked, and providing such info to consumers is dangerous.

This will be an interesting process to watch.  I find myself rooting for 23 and me.

musk3Elon Musk is all kinds of crazy.

Who starts a car company in the U.S. these days?  Lets see, currently we have all of the drama of the auto industry bailout.  However, its not like this was hard to see coming.  Strikes.  Unions. Fierce foreign competition. Slow to declining sales. Layoffs. These were the big auto industry headlines in the 1980’s.  Given all this, who would start a new car company from scratch?  Elon Musk.  Tesla Motors.

I have a new idea.  Lets compete with NASA!  Yeah.  We can start a new space exploration company. Who does that?  Lets see.  Russia did that.  China is working on that.  There is a European consortium of nations working on that.  Not for the faint of heart.  Not many of the names on that list are private individuals… Elon Musk not only decided to start  SpaceX but he is building it on the back of brand-new reusable launch vehicles. Elon thought that the ones NASA designed were inefficient and outdated.  Oh.  Ok.  Well, NASA and company seem to be impressed.  So far he has contracts with the U.S. Air Force and NASA for over a billion dollars worth of potential launches, as long as SpaceX hits their development milestones.

The guy is 37 years old.  Wonder what he’ll do next?


“Cure to Cancer Discovered in Some Guy’s Basement” sounds like your typical headline at theonion.com.  Wait.  This one is real? 

John Kanzius is a former radio station owner who, experimenting with ideas in his basement, has created a machine that has exciting cancer-treatment potential.  He is not a cancer researcher.  He has no real ‘lab.’  The device Kanzius created emits very specific radio frequencies that can excite nano-sized particles to heat them up and cause cell death. By carefully modulating the radio frequencies emitted, he can potentially target only certain particles in cancer cells to destroy such cells while preserving healthy cells nearby.  Part of the technology is about getting the right particles into the cancer cells to be targeted by the machine.  Now Kanzius is focusing on getting funding for scaling up his invention and prepping for clinical trials.  Although he started off alone in his basement, he now has some heavy-hitter help from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Pittsburg to move his work forward.

By the way, another cool trick from John Kanzius’ crazy cancer destroying machine is that it has potential in the green power generation field because of its freaky ability to light salt water on fire.  See the picture above, where an ice cube is engulfed in a flame.


gatesIn case anyone was wondering, the key to real wealth creation is entrepreneurship.  A little exercise to help illustrate my point.  Click on the link above and check how many of the richest Americans can blame their wealth on entrepreneurship.  If you remove the inheritance crowd, the percentage is even bigger.  Oh, wait.  Yeah, most inheritance-based wealth is the direct result of earlier entrepreneurship by the innovative ancestor of the inheritor.   If you are a fan of larger sample sizes, expand your search to the global list of the world’s billionaires on Forbes.  Check.  Yep, they are mostly entrepreneurs too.

Word to the wise:  start your own high-growth business.


Where do ideas come from?  How does science solve problems?  My research suggests that it is usually  more than just some scientist in a lab somewhere with a eureka moment.  In recent years I have become fascinated with the field of informatics, and specifically, bioinformatics.  bluekeyboardAt a level of abstraction, informatics is the articulation of my organizational learning research at a much more broad level.  The key question driving my research on organizational learning is that of understanding how organizations create breakthrough new knowledge.  I see these types of breakthroughs as the driver of of most business and science, those ideas that transform industries, create new markets, and improve the human condition. Informatics aims to make the process of finding solutions / breakthroughs much more systematic… driving the questions we ask to be more precise and efficient. 

Who decides the direction of science?  On the ‘supply-side’ of course there are several answers, including individual scientists, research grants, and private funding.  Certainly the ‘demand-side’ of the equation has some influence too….  when an epidemic rages, science quickly jumps to find solutions.  Pharma companies very carefully choose their projects based on projected market sizes for potential drugs.  So, supply and demand control the direction of science.  I think its more idiosyncratic than that.  People have a wide variety of  motivations, and some of these motivations lead them to think about grad school.  Some do biology, some do engineering.  Maybe they even come  into grad school with some sort of idea of the type of work they would like to do.  Maybe.  More likely they read bios for people they might work with, decide which sound most interesting, and eventually work with one of these people.  At the end of their graduate studies they are a fresh-minted scientist, maybe a Ph.D., but what will they work on?  Something deriving out of their work in grad school.  This path dependency constrains science in existing directions.  Why are most major math breakthroughs created by people under the age of 30?  Because they are free of the rigidities of their experience.  The same goes for science.  Some break the mold, and all scientists morph over time to create their own identity, but their work, their version of science, their paths are significantly influenced by their experience. 

Informatics has the potential to change the questions people ask.  Why study the properties of one particular enzyme and not another?  People assign probabilities to certain directions, after engaging in local search around what they already know.  If informatics can provide tools for analyzing the big-picture, or make search generally more broad, or make search generally more effective by using more data more effectively to shape the questions we ask, the potential is crazy.  Everything could be solved faster.  Science would still be incremental, but the gains could be so much more systemic. Labs become exponentially more productive.  Collaborations can be driven by likelihood models instead of just social relations or geographic proximity. 

Informatics could be the solution to solutions.  Or at least the solution to asking better questions, and attacking better problems.  I think that is fascinating.

Apparently Microsoft thinks so too… see this doc on Microsoft’s vision of science in 2020 and the roadmap to get there (driving straight through informatics).

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