The Innovation Story of the Year
So, who will play Jorge Odon in the movie?
Until this morning I’d never heard of Odon. Then I read this article in the New York Times about a 59-year-old Argentine car mechanic who invented a mechanism for safely extracting babies stuck in the birth canal. The device involves a plastic bag, which is inflated around the baby’s head and can then be used to pull the baby out, potentially causing less damage than forceps or suction cups. The World Health Organization has endorsed the device. Becton Dickenson licensed it for production.
The idea came to Odon in a dream after he viewed a Youtube video about extracting a cork from a wine bottle.
Benicio del Torro? Javier Bardem? Maybe Lucy Liu as head of the World Health Organization?
Companies talk about ideation and stage-gate processes and R&D investments; then they scramble to replicate the kind of out-of-nowhere insight visited on some guy in a garage. Odon’s garage wasn’t even a makeshift laboratory: it was a real, working garage where he did to crankshafts whatever it is people do to crankshafts. I find it exciting and kind of romantic to be reminded that innovation--important innovation--can be the random output of random inspiration working on random material inputs. The creation of a dream state: not a state-of-the-art lab.
Companies like Quirky and Edison Nation both celebrate and profit from the idea that invention is a democratic act. But most citizen inventors traffic in want-to-haves, not need-to-haves; not devices that could end up saving lives. Occasionally you hear stories about laypeople who rise to the challenge of a loved one’s illness, like Robert Goldman, the digital media entrepreneur who designed an infusion catheter to help his sister, suffering from cancer. And some independent inventors do put up their dukes against the world’s most intractable problems. The Brit Alexander Bushell, for example, created a solar-powered germination system to combat hunger.
Goldman and Bushell, of course, were trying. Odon didn’t try. He didn’t even make an imaginative leap. He was leapt, if that makes sense. His unconscious gave him a gift, which--depending on your perspective--is either miraculous or a bit unfair.
But then look what he did with it.
According to the Times story, the morning after the dream Odon reached out through a friend to an obstetrician. He experimented with materials and built prototypes. He networked his way to an audience with the chief of obstetrics at a major hospital, who had the product tested at a U.S. university lab. He continued to refine the device, patenting along the way. Odon shrewdly executed the 99 percent perspiration bit. Without it, his 1 percent would never have made headlines--or a difference.
The story of Jorge Odon and his extraction device is destined to become a classic in the innovation genre. I predict that by spring multiple new business books will cite it as an example of the power of serendipity or rapid prototyping or entrepreneurial networking or anything else it could conceivably represent. Before the management-thinker establishment co-opts this irresistibly inspirational tale, take a moment to savor it. A guy in dirty overalls watched Youtube, went to bed, and now fewer babies may die. You can’t build a process around that. Just be glad you live in a world where it happens.