Learning from the Invention Machine

Forbes has a great story about Nottingham and Spirk, two prolific inventors we have never heard of.

The spark for this work came from this: small companies are more innovative then the greatest R&D centre in the world.

He said, John, this is the greatest R&D center in the world,’ Nottingham recalls. I’m just drinking it in. I’m just saying, Wow, I’m in heaven, feeding the ducks. Then he dropped a bomb on me. He says, It’s amazing that the most innovative ideas that General Motors has come up with have come from the outside, small companies.

Observing people in context, prototyping and learning is key to their inventions.

The process starts in a research lab in the church’s basement. Designers, engineers and prototype builders crowd into a small room on one side of a two-way mirror and watch through the glass as consumers use products like, say, a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. They take notes on potential problems, such as how sick people usually take two teaspoons instead of the suggested two tablespoons, underdosing themselves.

The designers then go to work on a solution: for instance, a dosage cup that fits onto the top of the Pepto-Bismol bottle. The product is built in an expansive prototype workshop, complete with industrial-grade saws, paint rooms and 3-D printers. Clients walk away with a patent plus a prototype they can send straight to a manufacturer. Sales climbed 30% in the year after Pepto-Bismol introduced a cap that measures dosage, and the design is now ubiquitous on medicine bottles.

And they have a innovative business model

the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center invites corporate behemoths… then invent the solutions and give clients a choice of how to pay. They can either fork over cash up front, as much as $120,000 a month, or pay a royalty fee down the road, up to 5% of sales. It’s a sliding scale–the more cash at the start, the lower the royalty fee later.


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