Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Innovation is like happiness - you don't get there by pursuing it" - @ErikaIlves

Meet Erika Ilves, Founder of  road:infinity and Transplanetary, Chief Strategy Officer at Shackleton Energy. Her "mission is space settlement. She splits time between two ventures that fuel the space frontier in two different ways - one literally, by putting refueling depots in orbit (Shackleton Energy) and another figuratively, by making space easier to invest in (Transplanetary)."


Here's what she told us about Innovation:

Tell us what you believe the biggest misconception is about mobilizing innovation?

E: Innovation is like happiness - you don't get there by pursuing it. If you are focusing on "mobilizing innovation," you've already missed the bus. [Tweet this]

Innovation is what happens when you are obsessed with 
solving a problem better, faster, cheaper (e.g., how can we create a circular resource economy with zero waste? how can we take all the health monitoring gadgets and make them invisible? how can we take all our sensors & big data algorithms and make our homes run in a super-optimized mode and anticipate our needs?) or
expanding the realm of what's possible (e.g., how can we build what we need from atoms up? how can we create new life forms with properties we need? how can we build machines that can think? how can we grow our meat in the lab? how can we grow human organs from scratch?). 

So take on a near-impossible challenge. The rest will flow from there.




What is/has been the most important key for fueling forward the innovation engine from your experience?

E: Constraints! An architect friend of mine once told me that he did his most creative design work when he was faced with a set of rigid constraints from his clients. His nightmare client was the one who came with a plot of land and no idea what she wanted. 

In my own experience, too, the best innovations are born out of severe constraints. At the most fundamental level, we are obviously constrained by the laws of physics. But then we layer other constraints on top - how big is the market potential? how many minds can we throw at the problem? how much funding can we allocate? how much time do we have to solve the problem? 

The solution space needs to be constrained carefully. 

In most cases, there is a Goldilocks zone where the constraints are just right to lead to something wonderful. One rule of thumb for narrowing in on the Goldilocks zone is to listen to what your R&D or product development team asks for and then make it a notch or two harder.

Personally, I spend most of my time these days in space, outside the Goldilocks innovation zone, in a place where markets don't yet exist and meaningful amounts of funding are not yet available. 

Here, the first innovation job is to find a way to get people to see what's not there, create a market before you can serve it. That keeps my engine going! 

Editor's Note: 

Next month at FEI EMEA 2015 in Vienna, Austria, Erika will present a talk on How to Make a Dent in the Universe.

The presentation is based on in-depth interviews with founders of companies that embark on missions of cosmic proportions (e.g. create a multi-planetary civilization, make food without agriculture, create inter-planetary resource economy) and yet manage to create a self-sustaining or even profitable stepping-stones on the way to their mission.

They've been called "supermen," "visionaries," "crazy ones." They don't set out to innovate, win or disrupt. They set out to change the trajectory of the ongoing human project. And in the process, they end up innovating, creating new industries and raising eye brows. The talk explores why they do it, how they do it and whether you could do what they do.

We hope to see you there!





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