It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date.
~ Roger von Oech

The Broken Road To Innovation

Each spring semester we conduct a student travel course under the theme of agricultural entrepreneurship, culminating in a trip in May after classes conclude.  This year’s version was to North Carolina.  I deeply appreciate the time the entrepreneurs and businesses take to introduce themselves to our group.

Trips like this are a great chance for students to broaden their view of agriculture, technology, entrepreneurial career paths, and innovation.  For me it’s much the same, with perhaps a little more opportunity to be reflective of past experience.

A theme that emerged from some of the site visits this week in North Carolina trip was how broken the road is that leads to successful innovation.  There is clearly no single formula for developing an idea and moving it successfully into the marketplace, whether it is related to a new food product, development of a new biotechnology, or introduction of new information technology.  The only common element is that successful innovation is typically only remotely related to the original idea or business concept.  The road to successful innovation has sharp turns, curves, double backs, and U turns.

We visited with Medicago, a company that is developing a new means of vaccine production that could radically alter the normal assumptions of scale in that market.  Whereas vaccine production normally occurs using eggs, a slow and expensive process, Medicago is using tobacco plants to produce vaccines.

Use of tobacco plants for vaccine production is nothing terribly new, however.  I remember more than ten years ago that there were companies attempting to genetically modify tobacco plants to express proteins that could be used for various pharmaceutical uses.  To my knowledge, none of those efforts bore significant marketplace success.

Medicago’s approach is to infect the tobacco plants with an agrobacterium such that the tobacco plant expresses proteins that can serve as vaccines for various flu viruses and other diseases, different from past approaches.  They’re on the cusp of developing a method of vaccine production that is a game-changer, enabling production of vaccines as a speed and scale that allows much more timely responses to flu outbreaks and more virile pandemics.

For the many scientists and entrepreneurs i involved in various projects and ventures related to plant pharma, this is likely an unexpected outcome.  It has been a very long and broken road to the one of the first potential big breakthrough innovations in this market space.

We also appreciate the time spent with the Fulton Breen and his team at XS Inc.  XS was one of the early B-to-B Internet companies in the late 1990s, along with a company I started, E-Markets, so Fulton and I lived through the craziness of the Internet boom and bust and all the accompanying jockeying that occurred at the time in the ag space.

The original business for XS, online auctions for excess crop protection chemicals, has become a nice business for the company.  Not the billion dollar business many thought it could become, but a business with significant and growing transactions.  That original business, however, is  a shadow of the company’s data management business.  A business that was not clearly envisioned at the it’s founding is now the basis for the company just being named one of the 2012 North Carolina Companies to Watch Award Recipients.

A core skill of innovators is the ability to leave behind or modify the idea that has had its day or simply will not work and move on to what comes next.   Successful ideas are often kissing cousins of failed ideas, and the ability of people to move from one to the next is what enables success.

“Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe” asked M. A. Rosanoff.

“There ain’t no rules around here,” replied Edison.  We’re trying to accomplish somep’n!”