Finding the Next Edison

Everyday people are responsible for a striking number of inventions and innovations. How can business enlist more of them?
George Bates

The inspiration for Rafael Hwang’s million-dollar idea came, as inspiration sometimes does, from Jay Leno.

It was January 25, 2013, and Hwang, then a 22-year-old Arizona State senior, was watching The Tonight Show at his apartment in Glendale. One of the evening’s guests was Ben Kaufman, the ebullient founder of Quirky, a manufacturing company that builds products dreamed up by a global throng of amateur inventors. Kaufman showed off his newest gosh-wow creations to the studio audience with a circus showman’s flair (an egg-yolk extractor! a citrus spritzer you plug right into the lemon!). Home on the couch, Hwang thought, Hey, I can make something better than that.

Without experience in engineering or design, Hwang technically couldn’t “make” anything—at least, not by himself. But he had an idea about how to answer a small, recurring question for millions of supermarket shoppers like himself: Am I running low on eggs?

Hwang drew up plans for the first-ever “smart” egg carton, which syncs with your phone to display the eggs still in the tray, and submitted his admittedly rough sketch (“It was horrible,” he confided to me). The idea was a hit at Quirky, which refined and fully engineered the carton, modeled it using a 3-D printer, and had it mass-manufactured in China. The Egg Minder, co-branded with GE, is now on shelves; Hwang is guaranteed about 13 percent of the product’s sales.

This might sound like the apotheosis of crowd-sourcing, but Ben Kaufman can’t hear the word without getting cross. “Do you like being in a crowd? Do you like sourcing? I hate both of those things,” Kaufman told me. “Quirky isn’t just pulling from our community, we’re starting a conversation.” At its vast converted-warehouse headquarters, in West Chelsea in New York City, the company refines the slapdash ingenuity of a nation of napkin-doodlers by combining it with the sophistication of a modern design, manufacturing, and distribution company.

Erik Brynjolfsson, a management professor at MIT and a co-author, with Andrew McAfee, of the new book The Second Machine Age, calls this new approach to problem-solving “combinatorial innovation.” It’s his belief that invention and scientific progress typically come not from entirely new ideas, but from the right combination of existing ideas. What science and engineering companies need, therefore, are smarter ways to collect and grade all these potential idea combinations—the way Quirky uses in-house experts to advise on, tweak, and build promising ideas, rather than trying to turn every doodle into a new product. “There are a ton of potential ideas out there, and the bottleneck is being able to evaluate and consider them all,” Brynjolfsson told me. “The great thing about digital technology is that it’s easier than ever to get lots of eyeballs looking at our biggest problems.”

Opening up challenges to a diverse group of people is powerful, not only because it gives you more shots on goal, but also because it gives you different shots, from surprising angles. “Big companies can’t invent that well. They know too much,” Kaufman said. “They lose touch with the average person. When you become infinitely educated in a category, you’re your own worst enemy, because you can instantly say the 15 to 20 reasons something isn’t needed, and you don’t realize the one reason it is needed.”

In other words, outsiders often present the most-interesting answers to complex problems, not despite their lack of expertise, but because of it.

The airplane that took off from Kitty Hawk in 1903, one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, was devised by famously unlikely inventors. Orville and Wilbur Wright ran a bicycle shop, and lacked the engineering chops of the many pilots whose dreams had crashed along with their gliders. But this background played to their advantage when Wilbur, chatting up a customer, casually twisted a rectangular bike-part box, turning its left and right sides in opposite directions. The concept he had absentmindedly modeled is now known as “wing warping,” one of the breakthroughs that made the first flight possible. The twisting wing became part of the brothers’ most important patent.

The romantic ideal of the everyman inventor, or the at-home eureka moment, sounds too mythically quaint to be real. But research into the mysterious origins of invention suggests that neither the Wright brothers nor Rafael Hwang were exceptions.

When the business scholars Karim Lakhani and Lars Bo Jeppesen studied Innocentive, an online clearinghouse for unanswered questions in science and other fields, they discovered that the people most likely to solve the most-complex problems weren’t professionals in the discipline in question. In fact, being an expert in an area distinct from the field of the challenge was a “statistically significant predictor” of success. The secret ingredient was what Lakhani, a professor at Harvard, calls “interdisciplinary expertise”—the ability to draw connections between one subject and another. Hwang, for example, was not a kitchen-appliance engineer. But he understood mobile technology, gadgets, and his own shopping habits well enough to envision a product connecting our phones to our refrigerators.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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