Galilei-style innovation

“Open innovation is a new approach to doing business.”

Well, not really. Open approaches to innovation have been around for hundreds of years. Consider Galileo Galilei, for example. The story of Galileo Galilei and the telescope from the 17th century is a great example of how connecting people and ideas led to significant scientific, technological, and business progress.

Unlike hundreds of years ago, the internet now enables us (at least in principle) to take this “connecting ideas and people” approach to a world wide scale.

Taking innovation sensing and analytics to web scale has many known challenges (huge amounts of information, spread across millions of sources, no standards as to how the information is presented, etc.).   Addressing the challenges, and getting better and better at it, is the reason mergeflow exists.

Galilei, scientist and entrepreneur

I recently read a great book about Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler (“Das Weltgeheimnis” by Thomas de Padova; http://thomasdepadova.com/weltgeheimnisvorwort.htm). What I found particularly interesting in this book is the story of Galilei and the telescope.

Here is a summary of the story from Thomas de Padova’s book, shortened and rephrased in my own words:

In the summer of 1609, Paolo Sarpi, a statesman and scientist from Venice, told Galilei about new optical devices called “occhialini”. Occhialini can magnify distant objects. Sarpi had heard about occhialini through his network of diplomats. Through this network, Sarpi also heard and then told Galilei about a traveling businessman who sold occhialini in Padova and Venice (which is where Galilei spent most of his time). This is probably how Galilei first saw occhialini (it is unclear whether he purchased one; occhialini at the time cost about four times Galilei’s annual salary). Then, less than three weeks later, on 21 August 1609, Galilei presented his first telescope to the public.  Within a few months after this initial presentation, Galilei had surpassed his competitors in the European telescope market, and he had laid the foundation for his scientific discoveries (e.g. the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus).

Key factors contributing to Galilei’s success

How could Galilei make such rapid technological and scientific progress and create a business model for himself, manufacturing and selling high quality telescopes?  After all, Galilei did not invent the telescope from scratch, and he was not the only one who experimented with telescopes in a systematic way.  Others included Thomas Harriott in London, for example, who perhaps was the first human to view the moon through a telescope.  And Middelburg in the Netherlands had a whole community of world class opticians (a “Silicon Valley of optics”, perhaps, at the time).  Yet, Galilei beat them all to many scientific discoveries and to successful business as well.

In my opinion, the following factors were key to Galilei’s success:

  • Galilei’s network:  Galilei had an active and diverse network, consisting not just of academics but also of manufacturers, businesspeople, diplomats, and others.  Through this network, Galilei obtained high quality, clear glass, for instance (from his friend and drinking buddy Girolamo Magagnati, who had a glass manufactury in Murano).  This glass enabled him to produce high quality telescopes.
  • Having his own construction lab: Galilei had his own construction lab, where he could rapidly test and improve ways of manufacturing telescopes.  For instance, he systematically worked out ways to produce better convex front lenses, which were a lot harder to make than the concave eye pieces.
  • His mindset: Galilei was not just scientist or just businessman.  He combined both worlds.  Perhaps this enabled (or forced) him to sometimes come up with pragmatic solutions.  For instance, rather than trying to make the all-perfect convex front lens for his telescopes, he made bigger lenses that were very good at the center, and covered their poorer outer parts with a simple mechanical iris.

Scaling up open approaches to innovation

When we look at Galilei’s approach to innovation, it seems that many things have not changed much since then.  We still maintain professional networks, go to meetings and conferences, visit companies and R&D organizations, and generally try to connect science, technology, and business.

However, unlike Galilei in the 17th century, we now have the web.  At least in principle this enables us to take Galilei’s approach to an entirely new scale.  We can “travel” to conferences, companies, or research institutions, or at least to their web representations, via a few keyboard strokes and mouse clicks.

In practice, things are not quite that easy, of course.  Bringing innovation sensing and analytics to web-scale has well-known and daunting challenges, none of which can be solved purely manually.  Apart from the sheer amount of information, this information is spread across millions of sources, and there are no standards as to how the information is presented or spelled out.  Addressing these and other challenges, and getting better and better at it, is the reason we build Mergeflow.

Now, one question at least remains: Would Galilei have used Mergeflow?  We do not know, of course, but we sure hope he would have!