Get Your Lab Coat: 3 Innovation Tips From a World Bank Science Expert

05/29/2015 11:30 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016


Four hundred years.

And scientists are still at it. Chasing odd questions. Trying things that might not work. Driven by curiosity, not short-term profit.

Plenty they can teach us entrepreneurs about innovation.

What can a world expert on science commercialization tell us here?

Armed with a PhD in physics, Alistair Brett is a long-time consultant for the World Bank, and also the International Technology Commercialization advisor at T2VC -- a Silicon Valley venture firm that designs ecosystems to stimulate innovation.

In my interview with Brett, he shared valuable ways to improve your innovation mindset.

So let's dive in.

1) Think in terms of models.

What is a model? It's a way to approach complex problems. Lifted straight from the scientific method.

Simply put, you break things down and simplify. Say, you got an idea for a visual way to make it easier to browse for books. So you break it down: how do people currently find books? They go to Amazon. And they use a grid-based layout to browse.

That's a model: it's not 100% correct (some people don't browse a grid, they type and search), but captures a basic behavior.

So how do you test your idea? Reinvent Amazon and build your new layout on top? Nope. You build the layout and grab some book lists off Amazon. You don't reinvent.

"What often that too much reinventing is going on." says Brett.

But if you model -- break it down into component pieces, then you can reuse parts and don't need to reinvent.

"The idea is that of being able to model something and break it down into its component pieces, which then can not necessarily just be cut and paste, but they can be the basis -- suitably modified, so that you don't have to reinvent."

He shares a recent example. Working with the World Bank, he looked at business models for poor developing countries. Many of the poorest countries have 'water ATMs' where you can buy fresh water. And public toilets that have a small charge.

These two utilities need repairs and maintenance. To do that, you need to have financing in place. Breaking the business model down into small pieces, they discovered the way you maintain and the way you finance are very similar for both water ATMs and public toilets. Thus, no need to reinvent completely separate business models for each utility. Huge savings.

In 1 sentence, here's how you can use modelling:

"See if you can break down a business model into components, into pieces." says Brett.

One pitfall here: break things down too much and you might convince yourself the problem is too difficult, or already solved well enough -- and so you quit. Perhaps too soon.

2) Don't give up too soon.

They tell us: fail fast, fail often.

And they're right. Don't build stuff nobody wants. If your ideas are wrong, you want to know as soon as possible.

Hold on though. Hit the FAIL button too fast and you won't have enough time to solve hard problems.

Not very smart, as Brett tells us:

"It may not always pay to give up too soon."

For instance, he tells us about the Wright brothers. Two guys who built the first working airplane out of the blue. Their journey was full of problems. Things didn't work, they had little money and lots of accidents.

Five years after their first successful flight, they continued their marketing drive for powered flight. Traveled the world to show people planes can really fly. One day, Wilbur Wright lost control of his plane and crashed. Broke his leg, several ribs, fractured his hips, plus plenty of other injuries. Great ideas can hurt.

Did they give up? No. And today, everybody knows planes can fly. Paved the way for modern airline travel.

Of course, perseverance isn't enough. You need a reality check. Razor-sharp skepticism.

3) Learn scientific skepticism.

Consider: two people talk. One is an entrepreneur, full of passion and fire. The other is a scientist, naturally curious, but trained in objectivity.

How do they interact?

"The scientist might be able to balance the entrepreneur a little bit. While the entrepreneur might get a little over-excited, the scientist may be that still, small voice in the calm that says 'okay, let's just not get too excited here. Let's look at reality.'" says Brett.

Ouch. We know what that's like: you're sitting there spinning tales about your idea. Wide-eyed. Full of enthusiasm. And then, in comes the devil's advocate who points out all the obvious flaws. And *pop* go all your thought bubbles. Back to Square One.

The lesson? You need the devil's advocate. Otherwise, you just won't see the approaching cliff-edge.

For instance, Brett was working with a company in Russia. They tried to develop a substitute for butter, one without trans fat. After a lot of work, the company came up with an alternative. The problem? It had like 2% trans fat in it. Unknown to them, the EU had passed a rule that it should be 0% trans fat. End result: tons of time and money lost. They could never meet those 0% standards.

The right kind of skepticism could have shown that from the beginning. Learn to be skeptical -- the way scientists are. (Here's one of many ways to start. If you want more, shoot me a comment below.)

Science and innovation are connected. Harness these connections. They're solid and time-tested.

Hard to argue with centuries of experience.

Hi, I'm Harry. Keen to create technology to help you innovate faster. Let's connect.