Innovation: A View from the Lab

by Joseph O. Rich
National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research

It is not certain where the next great innovation will come from, but we are prepared to recognize it when it gets here.

A range of organizations, including many businesses and governments, rightly express the need for “innovation,” though the word could easily be on its way to becoming one of those overused corporate buzzwords. One can almost envision the head of R&D being told by the CEO to “go forth and innovate.” My experience with innovation, however, is not so straightforward. I have found that innovation really stems from a great deal of unglamorous hard work in the lab.

Recognizing the Solution
What is innovation? calls it “the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.” I think we can learn more from some of the synonyms: revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, breakthrough, novelty, newness, creativity, originality, ingenuity, inspiration and inventiveness. The antonyms—stagnation, habit, "old hat" and rut—also provide useful perspective on the need for innovation. Who really wants to be stagnant or in a rut? I’d rather be creative, original and novel.

This quote is found along with the Google definition of innovation: “No appliance manufacturer can survive without an ongoing commitment to innovation.” A commitment to innovation is good, but what is really needed is a commitment to long-term investment in the research that is necessary for breakthrough innovations—which also requires a commitment to all of the “failed” innovations that inevitably come with the goal of creating something novel, original or inspiring. Somewhere within these failures is where the commitment to innovation can break down. What really needs to be asked is not “Are we committed to innovation?”, but rather, “Are we prepared to support long-term research that does not immediately improve the next quarter’s bottom line?”

Many—I could easily argue most—of our society’s needed innovations will not be preplanned. Albert Einstein summarized it well when he said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research.” Most research, at least my research, relies on some level of serendipity. To paraphrase Louis Pasteur, the world-renowned French chemist and microbiologist, “Serendipity favors the prepared mind.” David Burkus, in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, stated that innovation is “not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.” These observations support the need for broad investment in fundamental and applied research. As scientists in the lab and on the front lines of innovation, we need to be prepared to recognize the good ideas and solutions that are already in front of us.

A case in point is Viagra. Before you laugh out loud, sildenafil citrate was originally developed by Pfizer in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a heart medication. The results of the early clinical trials were underwhelming and offered little promise that it would be therapeutically beneficial. Patients in the clinical trials, however, reported a now well-known, significant side effect from its use. This observation, combined with improved understanding of specific biochemical pathways, was critical to identifying a new treatment for erectile dysfunction. The rest is history, and Viagra has become one of the largest-selling drugs in the world, with over $7 billion in sales from April 2014 to March 2015. Not too bad for a failed heart medication.

Innovations from the Peoria Ag Lab
We recently observed the 75th anniversary of the Peoria Ag Lab (officially known as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research). During that time, USDA scientists have performed wildly innovative research at this corner of University Street and Nebraska Avenue, which has had—and continues to have—far-reaching impact. The 5,000 or so people who came through the lab on the second weekend of October were able to see some of the research highlights that have resulted from the hard work in our laboratory.

One of these innovations, the large-scale production of penicillin, was the direct target of a large, planned research program in the 1940s. The discovery of penicillin in 1928, on the other hand, resulted from the serendipitous observation by Alexander Fleming of a petri dish covered with bacteria—except for the area around where a mold had contaminated the plate.

Many other highlighted innovations needed a whole lot of serendipity, such as the low-glycemic index sweetener Xtend sucromalt, used in the Glucerna line of diabetic foods; or Super Slurper, the super water-absorbent material from corn starch that led to dozens of products, including disposable baby diapers; or the novel sunscreen and cosmetic ingredient SoyScreen (produced by iActive, a local startup company), which combines a compound found in all plants with soybean oil into a product with UV absorbance and antioxidant properties; or making biodiesel fuel from the seed oil of pennycress (a common weed), which offers farmers a potential new revenue crop without interfering with their usual corn-bean rotation scheme.

All of these innovations share one thing in common: They all made it into the commercial market. The period of time between the recognition of a potential solution and where the product begins to make a commercial impact is measured in years… and frequently decades. While there are many pitfalls in this process, including a wide variety of technical, regulatory and market issues, it is through the persistence of technical and business staff in overcoming these pitfalls that great inventions become great innovations.

What will the Ag Lab’s next great innovation be? The answer is not an easy one, but the people I work for are really interested in the answer. It could be a novel antibacterial natural product that helps address antibiotic resistance… technologies that improve the efficiency of biofuel production… next-generation biofuels or consumer/industrial products made from biomass… new water treatment technologies… new biological pesticides… technologies to more accurately assess the safety of our food supply. It could be any of these, or even all of them.

All of these and more are being worked on at the Peoria Ag Lab. It is not certain where the next great innovation will come from, but our minds are prepared to recognize it when it gets here. iBi

Joseph O. Rich, PhD is research leader for the Renewable Products Technology Research Unit at the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria.

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