The innovative spirit at work

“Everyone at Harvard is inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

That’s what Harvard President Larry Summers told the Winklevoss twins when they whined about Mark Zuckerberg stealing their idea in the movie, The Social Network.  Summers urged them to “let their imaginations run away with them on a new project.”

I had a chance this past weekend to witness firsthand the Harvard invention credo, with one small twist: I was at Yale, about four miles and 400 SAT points from my CRN office in nearby Hamden. It was the “Entrepreneurship Across Yale” weekend of “pitches, prizes and world-changing ideas.” Finalists from two contests among Yale students shared their entrepreneurial ideas with the hope of winning financial support. Non-winners were invited to present their ideas again the next day in an audience-judged Tuna Tank—a takeoff on the popular TV show of another fish.

One of the most innovation-inspiring exercises is hearing ideas of others, and this event was no exception. Here were the finalists for Yale’s Sabin PrizeGrovio, an unmanned aerial system for monitoring agricultural fields; HomE, a “clean energy” battery backup for essential home appliances; Poda Foods, food-grade cricket protein; and Tuckerman & Co., high-quality, sustainably made professional clothing. And don’t tell me you just had one of the same ideas!

The Tuna Tank strangely conjured up memories of another scene in The Social Networkwhere Napster founder Sean Parker convinces Zuckerberg not to go after advertising right away for Facebook because advertising “isn’t cool.” The ten student presenters in this exercise described very different business concepts ranging from a peer-to-peer delivery service, to a dating service where your friends—not you—do the initial screening to find you a good match, to a device that gives users “freedom from the screen” by communicating everything via voice, to virtual consultants for small business. Creativity was rampant, and the young Yale-schooled entrepreneurs were impressive in their deliveries. But several of the concepts lacked a well-thought-out business model and potential revenue stream. Hey, at least in college, even for some School of Management whizzes, I guess coolness still counts.

Also part of the weekend, the Thorne Prize recognized the best student-led venture focused on social innovation in health. Consider the ideas of the finalists: Formidably, a software platform for securely digitizing and processing data on paper forms, optimized for developing countries; Hapterix, a point-of-care test that non-invasively diagnoses neonatal sepsis, a bacterial infection and leading cause of morbidity and mortality in newborns; PremieBreathe, a low-cost respiratory aid for newborns in low-resource settings; and the prize winner, StoryTime, making early literacy accessible to all by sending children’s stories to low-income parents via text message.

To experience something similar to Yale’s rapid-fire snapshots of innovation, check out the year-end issue of The New York Times Magazine, which highlights all the new patents applied for over the past 12 months. It’s a plethora of unique thinking and unusual concepts—most of which never make it to market. Many are quite funny, but they are also inspirational and the very foundation of what innovation is. Fear of failure is not spoken here; neither was it spoken at the Yale School of Management.

In fact, Kyle Jensen, Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, argued in his remarks that failure is an ally to innovation, and entrepreneurs should enter the ring expecting defeat nine out of ten times. But that will serve to motivate them to get off the canvas and come back swinging the next time.

Corporations are obsessed with being perceived as innovative. They strive to create the right environment, get the right mix of people, provide context, foster openness and empowerment, and “let imaginations run away.” That atmosphere permeated Yale, full of enthusiastic, energetic, free-thinking minds as well as supportive, encouraging mentors.

Innovation has been a cornerstone at CRN since the very beginning. It is essential to meeting our clients’ objectives; it is integral to our success. Yet if you asked us where it came from, that might be harder to answer than actually developing the innovative client solutions themselves. That’s why our weekend peek into the next generation of entrepreneurs and the innovators of tomorrow was such a valuable, motivating experience. It gave us an up-close hint of the smell and spirit of innovation at work. And it was beautiful.