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Innovator – Ask Dumb Questions!

By Shlomo Maital

 dumb questions

   How can one person change the world?   By asking dumb questions.


   Here is what I mean. Last week I spoke with a founder of a startup called Aquarius. All four  founders are in their 50’s… not spring chickens. Not the twenty-somethings we often picture as startup entrepreneurs. One of the other founders is a serial inventor. And one day he asked a dumb question.

   The world auto industry is enormous, selling 90 million vehicles a year, with nearly a billion vehicles on the roads today. It is a major source of pollution and global warming. Car and truck engines burn hydrocarbons, either gasoline or diesel, and heavily pollute.

     Conventional car engines have worked on the same principle for at least 130 years. Gasoline is burned in a cylinder  when combined with air, driving the piston up and down. The up-down motion is converted into rotary energy, to turn the car wheels. The conversion process loses huge amounts of energy, making the conventional internal combustion engine only 20 % efficient.

     The Aquarius founder, Shay, asked: Why? Why convert up-down piston action to rotary wheel energy?   Duh… because, like, wheels go round and round, right?   For many decades, and many billions of dollars in research, huge companies have tried to improve car engines, without asking that dumb question. It’s obvious. Because wheels are round, you need rotary energy.

     Shay said, wait. Let’s lengthen the piston, and use its action to charge a battery. Then let’s send the electric energy to two electric motors attached to each of the front wheels.  No rotary conversion. No loss of energy.

     Result: 40% engine efficiency.   40%!!! Fuel saving. Plus, the key fact, far far less pollution, because by increasing air intake of the cylinder, the fuel is burned far more efficiently.     The whole engine is only 500 cc’s, about enough for a Fiat 500,   yet it is powerful enough to drive a larger vehicle. The engine generates an enormous 34 kilowatts of power, more than twice the power generated, for instance, by my Toyota Auris hybrid, (which I love, and which is wonderfully fuel efficient), which has an enormous heavy battery and generates only 14 kilowatts.   The Aquarius battery is very small, because there is no need to store electricity, it gets delivered immediately to the wheels. 

   Management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote a powerful article in Harvard Business Review, in which he challenged managers to challenge all their basic sacred cow assumptions. This is harder than you think.    We are often not aware of the things we believe are true, that in fact should and must be challenged. Drucker has a checklist that helps us run down all our assumptions and smash every single one, in search of a way to change the world.

   Remember the name. Aquarius. Will we live in the Age of Aquarius in the coming years? Stay tuned.


From Idea to Product: Crossing the Chasm

By Shlomo Maital


    When I teach entrepreneurship and innovation, I do a bit of theatre. I show my class a ‘matryoshka’ Russian nested doll set, and one by one assemble each doll, nested inside a larger one. I do this until I have 9 dolls on the table, down to the tiniest one. Then, I tell the story how one year, a sharp-eyed student asked, why nine? Instead of ten?, and I discovered a tenth tiny-tiny doll, much smaller than a pinky fingernail.

      I had been unaware of its existence, inside the 9th doll, for years.    See this? I hold it up to the students. This is the idea. This is the fun part. This is the easy part. The hard part? Implementing the idea. Building a business around it – the other 9 dolls. Without that, that tiny ‘idea doll’ is of no value.   

    Prof. Daniel Nocera, Harvard University, is an example. He has developed an artificial leaf. It’s an invention that generates energy the way a tree or a plant does. “Light strikes a container of water, and out bubbles hydrogen, an energy source, as the light breaks H2O into hydrogen and oxygen.” How does this work? Writes Jack Hittmarch (NYT March 29): “A silicon strip coated with catalysts breaks down the water molecule [using sunlight].”      Wow! Hydrogen! You could use all that hydrogen to power fuel cells, which are devices that convert the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Hydrogen is the most common ‘fuel’ for fuel cells.   

    Big wow! But the discovery was made years ago. Nocera says his system is very safe. “My system is based on water, so if there was a catastrophe we’d just need a mop.”   However, hydrogen is highly flammable, and highly explosive.    So turning the Artificial Leaf into usable energy means surmounting many obstacles. Create viable fuel cell technology. Solve safety issues, in storing hydrogen. Get consumers accustomed to using fuel cells. There are many cheap reliable nonpolluting energy sources. The issue, it seems, is not the invention. It’s how to make it desirable and usable for consumers. And THAT is a huge problem.   

   Nocera says that fracking and cheap natural gas is “killing” his artificial leaf invention.   But one day fracking may actually help. Fracking can produce hydrogen, at a cost of carbon dioxide. If such hydrogen production becomes widespread, so will the infrastructure to use it. And then, Nocera’s artificial leaf will be popular, because it can produce hydrogen (to feed the infrastructure) without generating carbon dioxide. It will defeat fracking.    To sum up: There are loads of great new technologies that ‘solve’ our problems. But there is a lack of wise capable entrepreneurs who know how to commercialize them fast, cheap, good, friendly, easy…. And governments willing to supply the needed infrastructure.  

    Innovators should bone up on these technologies and invest creativity not in new ideas but in how to implement old ones and diffuse them widely.    Long ago, Geoffrey Moore taught us how important it is to ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters of innovation and mass-market buyers. There is a different chasm, equally hard to cross – the chasm between a great idea based on sound technology, and a widespread commercial product or service used and loved by all. There is as much or more need for creativity in crossing this chasm as there is in inventing new technologies.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital