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Innovation is a Contact Sport

Kevin Pang, Vice President, Technology Innovation and Strategy
August 12, 2021

Great innovations happen like a cool three-ball pool shot. You know the kind. They are rare but beautiful to behold. What do we mean by this, and how does it apply to innovation? From time to time, we will use this channel to highlight examples of this pattern – but in short, great innovations force the collision of two disparate ideas or technologies by asking a heretofore unasked question. These questions usually get asked by inventive persons with access to said disparate technologies.

One such person was this gentleman, Allan C. Wilson, Professor of Biochemistry at U.C. Berkeley.

Allan C. Wilson, Professor of Biochemistry at U.C. Berkeley

Allan’s studies of evolution and his question of whether there exists a “molecular clock” measurable by genetic mutation rate led to the creation of the field of molecular evolution. Through his groundbreaking work dating back to the 1980s and 1990s, Allan and his colleagues helped to create and grow a number of very large and important commercial fields today:



Molecular Forensics

~$2 billion

Genetic Testing

~$23 billion

Molecular Diagnostics

~$115 billion


How did he do this?

As Allan told this story, surrounded by posted newspaper clippings regaling his exploits (see below),

Newspaper clipping with the headline "Mad scientists are cloning dinosaurs as weapons of the future"

he noted that looking out one day, he saw people carrying boxes into the anthropology building. One of the boxes happened to fall, and out rolled some rocks. He surmised that the people had been out collecting fossil samples. He thought, “There is DNA in those rocks,” or words to that effect.

He went over and asked for a few of the smaller rocks and, with a boy scout knife, began scraping bits of the rock into a test tube. A few biochemical reactions later (vastly oversimplified here), voila, he was extracting fossil DNA.


Why did he do that?

Allan hypothesized that there existed a “molecular clock” throughout evolution, namely that DNA mutated at a fixed rate, and that by comparing DNA (if one could) over time, one could measure the rate of genetic evolution, similar to the physical method of carbon dating but geared toward measuring biological evolution and much more precise than the simple anatomical comparisons in use up until that time. One of the more astonishing findings of this and other work is that humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical genetically, giving rise to yet another groundbreaking theory that the expression of genes, and not the genes themselves, is primarily responsible for speciation and diversity.

How exactly did this innovation happen?

Coming back to our pool table visualization as a three-ball collision:

Innovation is a Contact Sport Blog Post Figure 1

Generalizing the framework and sequence for the solution might look like this:

  1. A technology or body of know-how one is very familiar with and good at
  2. Combined with a new adjacent technology (in Allan’s case, the adjacency was literally next door)
  3. That creates a novel combination
  4. In the pursuit of a new tool
  5. That solves a novel question being asked

Innovation is a Contact Sport Blog Post Figure 2

Illustrated here is just one view of the “innovation system” or approach to ideation, viz., the envisioned systematic combination of a core technology with ancillary technologies to create novel combinations that address a need. In fact, at least in the beginning, the diagram flows in the opposite way, viz., the articulated need and the envisioned solution to that need followed by systematic combinations of old + new technologies/ideas to create novel and hopefully synergistic combinations that fit (unexpectedly) like a lock and key in a solution to the need.

Allan desired to know whether genetic evolution was a linear and time-dependent process, i.e., if mutations and variation accumulate uniformly over time. To do that, he needed to access and measure DNA not just across current species but across time. He solved this by adding one more element to his system, namely samples from an unusual source, fossils.

Many emerging innovations will have similar aspects to their formation. As a quick example, a recent company profile by Lux Analyst Kristin Marshall about startup Polaris Renewables provides a nice illustration.

Polyurethanes have been around since 1937 and are a mature market. However, given concerns over climate change, the need for new compounds for ever more complex composites, and the desire for a circular, “green economy,” the opportunity for revamping even staid commercial industries is significant. In this simple example, innovation and novelty is created by combining well-known polymeric synthesis with variable bio-derived feedstocks.

Innovation is a Contact Sport Blog Post Figure 3

As we continue covering similar innovations, other examples of this three-ball collision will be pointed out:

Technology 1 + Technology 2 + Novel Context A = New Solution B.

This formula can be used to explain both revolutionary innovations such as a molecular clock and incremental innovations like greener polyurethane. The test will be if such an approach can speed up the thoughtful design of new solution combinations and/or lead to increased novelty of approach and results. Stay tuned as we explore further.

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