Derek Newberry

The Role of Passion in Successful Innovation

Arun SharmaGuest blogger Arun Sharma is Scouting Lead for Innovations at the Lemelson Recognition and Mentoring Program (L-RAMP). He is also a writer for L-RAMP Blog, which explores trends in social enterprise, innovation, technology and poverty alleviation.

By Arun Sharma

At L-RAMP, we come into contact with many different innovators having ideas covering the spectrum, from new ways to make roads to new ways to make banana chips. This fascinating mix of people share the common trait of being intensely passionate about what they have created and impatient about getting their products to those who can benefit from them.

Of all the characteristics which make up an innovator, it is this intense passion which I find to be most commonly held and it is this passion which can be a great asset or a great hindrance to an entrepreneur’s chances of taking his product to market.

When an innovator contacts me, it is most often through an unscheduled telephone call or walk-in visit to our office. As I draw myself out of whatever I was doing at the time, I bring myself into his world and try to understand the new device/model/technology which he is explaining. After hearing him out, I try to better understand his innovation by applying some of the analytical methodologies we have developed which aim to, among other things, determine how well the innovation meets our three core criteria of:

  • providing social benefit to the rural poor
  • being innovative
  • able to be scaled through enterprise

I have to smile when I think of how often it seemed that the innovator thought I was a cruel man for ignoring the plight of the people who stood to benefit from his idea by analyzing it critically. Usually, the entrepreneur quickly brings the conversation back to the social impact of his innovation and how it would help India; his vision cares little for our process.

One entrepreneur found the plight of manual construction labourers carrying enormous weights on their heads a problem and so came to us with an idea for a shoulder harness helmet which transfers the load from the neck to their ostensibly stronger shoulder muscles, thus reducing the chance of cervical spondylitis and providing extra comfort for the labourer.

Another entrepreneur had an idea for an electric weeder which can reduce the manual effort currently expended in crop weeding and overcome the labour shortages endemic in many agricultural areas of the south, thus providing better income for farmers. A third explained (in his three visits and four telephone calls to our office) that his water lifting device would help reduce the electricity demand from water pumps by use of a novel manual pump-generator-electric pump combination, appropriately arranged to skirt the laws of physics.
Working with these innovators can be inspiring, frustrating and instructive. Their passion for their innovations and desire to share the benefit they project for their device is inspiring. Their unwillingness to slow down and consider their innovations from an unbiased perspective and the realities which will impede their path to market is frustrating. Their new and novel approaches to solving the problems they perceive in their daily lives are instructive and often the solutions are simple and elegant, providing benefits by intelligent application and arrangement of known elements.

I have come to the conclusion that passion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for market success. The shoulder harness helmet must contend with the established behaviour of the labourers he is trying to help, most of whom do not wish the encumbrance that his safety device offers. The electric weeder depends on the government supply of electricity (which can be erratic) and thus his potential customers may be wary of purchasing this device. The water lifting device was designed as a perpetual motion machine and despite his best intentions, the laws of physics ensure that it will never work as designed.

In this line of work, cliches are a dime a dozen (cliche intended) but one which holds mostly true is a line from Thomas Edison:

None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.

L-RAMP’s most successful innovators, those who have succeeded in taking their products or services to the market and thus creating the large-scale social benefit, were those who used their passion to push themselves through the challenge of making their ideas a reality.
In the three cases mentioned above, I’m not sure that the passion of the innovator was focused on reaching commercialization instead of being stuck on the initial thought/approach/design – in all cases, it is still early in the process and so perhaps future interactions will yield passionate discussions of how to move towards the market.

On the other hand we have Servals Automation, the Chennai-based firm which commercialized the Venus burner, and spent nearly 4 years in the journey to market; in the process they required a near-complete redesign of the burner, a change in materials used, a change in the pricing strategy and finally the elusive break into the market coming from an unforseeable bulk purchase from a government agency.

Through the many years, the CEO’s passion was necessary to keep him dedicated to the goal of taking this product to market, but it was his unending effort and willingness to adapt to the realities of the day which have led to monthly sales of 100,000 burners a month, each of which provide up to 30 percent savings in kerosene to his users in the process.

And so I look forward to hearing from the next great innovator who pops in – I look forward to their passion (almost a prerequisite for an innovator) but I hope that they use it to fuel the dedicated action required instead of merely getting caught up in the thrill of having an idea. It is those who channel their passion to action who, I believe, will be the next entrepreneurs bringing about large-scale social benefit through enterprise.