What would you do with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000, paid quarterly over the next five years?

Earlier this week, 24 people learned they'd receive an opportunity like this, as the 2015 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. These fellowships are commonly called "genius grants."

"These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways," MacArthur president Julia Stasch said in a statement. 

Here's a snapshot of three of this year's fellows, along with takeaways on how their innovations can inform and inspire your own. 

1. Patrick Awuah, education entrepreneur, 50
Founder and president, Ashesi University College in Accra, Ghana

Awuah's path to the genius grant exemplifies one of the most important principles of innovation: identifying a large market with an unmet need.

The $4.6 trillion market for global education fits the bill. The U.S.-based education startups aiming for a piece of this ginormous pie have received plenty of attention.

Awuah focused on education in Ghana, founding Ashesi University in 2002. It's a four-year private institution with a curriculum built around liberal arts, ethics, and job skills.

A native of Ghana, Awuah was educated in the U.S. He earned B.S. and B.A. degrees from Swarthmore in 1989. Ten years later he earned his M.B.A. from Berkeley. Between degrees, he worked at Microsoft as an an engineer and program manager. "He saw a stark contrast between his college experience, which stressed critical thinking and problem solving, and the rote learning common in Ghana's educational system," notes his MacArthur bio. 

Ashesi is already one of Ghana's premier universities. Many graduates have started their own technology businesses. In 2008, Ashesi became the first African university at which students established an honor code holding themselves responsible for ethical behavior. Awuah believes this focus can help to prevent corruption in the next generation of Ghana's leaders.

2. Alex Truesdell, adaptive designer and fabricator, 59
Founder, Adaptive Design Association (ADA), New York, NY

Innovation does not necessarily require high-tech bells and whistles. In fact, for prototyping and testing, you're better off using common, affordable materials. Truesdell's work creating furniture for special-needs children is living proof of it. She uses materials like corrugated cardboard and glue so her designers can prototype, build, and fit equipment on-site quickly and inexpensively. 

What's more, her work is a testament to the power of observing, listening, reacting, and testing--classic innovation principles you can use to learn the emotional truths of your prospective users or costumers. 

"Most devices that help children with special needs are expensive and mass-produced and must be replaced as a child ages," notes her MacArthur bio. "Each item built by ADA, in contrast, is the result of extensive collaboration with a child and family in order to optimize how the user will function at home or school. The result is unique, imaginative, and thoroughly useful products."

Her products include steps with superhero designs allowing a young person to climb in and out of a wheelchair without help; a seat insert making a classroom desk accessible for a little person; and a rocking chair that a non-walking child can propel--combined with a detachable tray for eating or playing.

"Truesdell's innovative approach to designing and building low-cost, high-quality adaptive equipment is improving the lives of thousands of children," continues her bio, "and disrupting traditional approaches to assistive technologies."

3. Heidi Williams, economist, 34
Assistant professor of economics, MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Do intellectual property restrictions such as patents hinder subsequent innovations? One of Williams's most important findings is that this topic is too nuanced to be addressed as a yes-or-no question. 

For example, in her study of the effort to decode the human genome, Williams found that a non-patent form of intellectual property protection at the early stages of research did indeed limit subsequent innovations.  

But in a later study, Williams and her co-author found that patent protection on human genes has in fact not hindered later research or product development.

The takeaway here is that "the precise design of intellectual property policies is important in shaping innovation outcomes," notes her MacArthur bio. In other words, you can't paint intellectual property restrictions with a broad brush. The form of the protection--be it a patent or something else--can make a legitimate difference.  

The consequences of Williams's work are life-and-death serious. For instance, she and her colleagues have found that the patent system creates a bias against the development of drugs treating early-stage cancers. The reason? Drugs for late-stage cancers take a shorter time to develop, test, and bring to market than do drugs for earlier-stage cancers.

And since patent protection begins at the time of filing (before the drug is officially on the market) the late-stage drugs wind up with a longer period of protection--thereby offering their makers more potential for profit (before the generic versions begin to encroach).   

All told, Williams' work demonstrates that laws and polices have an enormous influence on innovation. In other words, it is not just about the talents of your employees and the methods of your organization. It's also about the competitive and regulatory landscape.

Published on: Sep 30, 2015