Innovation Article

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The prospect of a “hydrogen economy”—in which vehicles powered by fuel cells would travel the nation’s roadways emitting nothing from their tailpipes but wisps of water vapor—was making headlines 12 years ago.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush issued a challenge to the nation’s scientists and engineers to overcome technical obstacles so that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution free.”

But today that goal remains a long way from realization—still because of numerous technical obstacles. One of the most persistently difficult is the question of how to store hydrogen on board.

Current options for carrying enough hydrogen for about 300 miles of driving—5–13 kg for light-duty vehicles, according to the Department of Energy (DOE)—include compressing the gas to thousands of pounds per square inch, cooling it to a liquid state, or releasing it from the surfaces of porous materials that have absorbed hydrogen. The last option has obvious appeal but typically requires long time intervals and very high temperatures to liberate the gas from its bound state.

The Un-Comfort Zone With Robert Wilson’s picture

By: The Un-Comfort Zone With Robert Wilson

A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from visiting her family in Greece. Knowing that I loved to try new wines, she brought me a bottle that she said was her parents’ favorite. She told me it was called retsina.

It was a white wine and I was anxious to try it. After letting it chill, I opened the bottle and gave it a sniff. It had a pleasant aroma of crushed pine needles. I then poured a small amount in a glass, swirled it, sniffed again, and took a generous quaff. My taste buds reacted violently. It was horrible. I rushed to the sink and spit it out.

My first thought was that the wine had gone bad, but as I thought more about it, I realized it did not taste like vinegar (which would indicate that it had spoiled). Instead, it tasted like paint remover.

The label was in Greek, so I couldn’t read it. I called a friend who is a wine expert and said, “I’ve been given a bottle of retsina wine from Greece.” He immediately replied, “Tastes like turpentine, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Has it gone bad?”

He laughed. “No, it’s supposed to taste that way,” he replied. “It’s flavored with pine pitch.”




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Ryan E. Day’s picture

By: Ryan E. Day

The fact is, we humans usually think much bigger than we can do. When that happens, collaborating to bring ideas to fruition becomes crucial for success. From that first time a woolly mammoth made a Neanderthal’s mouth water for a big juicy steak, humans have been working together to solve problems they couldn't solve on their own. But, spears were then, this is now, and methods of innovation continue to evolve.

Although necessity may be the mother of all invention, cerebral capital is the engine that drives innovation. In other words—no gray matter equals no innovation. Translating this simple idiom into commerce requires an awareness of the crucial need for creative ideas and talent. The ludicrous pace of change in the modern business world has challenged some industry leaders to rethink standard models for acquiring that talent. Even though the current poaching and counter-poaching of employees between Tesla Motors and Apple has produced amusing headlines, not everyone is wed to the staid idea of sequestering all the best and brightest minds away behind corporate walls. Take Ford Motor Co., Johnson Controls, and NineSigma, for example.

MIT News’s picture

By: MIT News

The U.S. economy retains myriad sources of innovative capacity—but not enough of the innovations occurring in America today reach the marketplace, according to a major two-year MIT study.

The report, by MIT’s commission on Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE), found that potentially valuable innovations occur throughout the advanced manufacturing sector—from academic labs to shop floors—and in companies of all sizes, from multinational conglomerates to specialized “main street” firms.

However, there are still holes in the “ecosystem” of advanced manufacturing in the United States—gaps that particularly inhibit innovative smaller firms. The PIE commission suggests that new policies, partnerships, and programs can help create innovation-based growth and jobs.

“If we want to stay strong in innovation, we must regain our strength in manufacturing,” says MIT president L. Rafael Reif, who is interested in creating an initiative on innovation, intended to strengthen MIT’s ability to move ideas to real impact. Reif noted that MIT will also continue to conduct research on innovation, and will engage with the government on activities like the White House’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), a federal effort to strengthen domestic manufacturing.

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The manufacturing workforce—so critical to manufacturing innovation—is the basic, yet decisive, building block for successfully implementing next-generation strategies. If manufacturers are to engineer innovation in their businesses, workforce-development investments must evolve from a one-off transactional activity to a business strategy integrated with other critical business strategies.

To be competitive, America’s small manufacturers must align their workforce strategies with their business goals, develop and manage workforce skills and employee training, streamline recruitment efforts, reduce turnover, support performance, and plan for internal career mobility and succession in their entire employee population.

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By: MIT News

You may have seen little squares of Tcho chocolate in their brightly colored wrappers decorated with futuristic parabolas of gold and silver. They’re easily found: Starbucks has sold them; Whole Foods sells them now.

Those usually aren’t the stores you visit to track down handcrafted chocolate from bean-to-bar makers, the new wave of chocolate producers that find and blend the rarest and most richly flavored cacao beans. Artisans like Mast Brothers, in Brooklyn, promise that each batch of bars will be different; nothing will be blandly mass-produced. In a video on their website, the lavishly bearded Mast siblings extol the “inconsistency” of their chocolate. Inconsistency generally isn’t what gets you orders from Starbucks and Whole Foods.

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By: MIT News

Prizes have long been used to induce solutions to national challenges. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, prizes yielded vaccine inoculation, lifeboats, a method of calculating longitude at sea, new food-preservation techniques, and more. But by the late 19th century, prizes had largely been replaced by two other mechanisms: patents and grants.

Those tools, however, have limitations. Patents lead to innovation only in areas where inventions have commercial potential; given the structure of government funding, grants are awarded to a narrow range of eligible recipients, and many good ideas often go begging. As a result, prizes have been making a comeback.

“Prizes are an incentive mechanism that is particularly interesting when you want to specify the kinds of innovations you’re looking for and when you want to diversify the base of potential innovators,” says Fiona Murray, the David Sarnoff Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management in the MIT Sloan School of Management. Accordingly, in early 2011, the Obama administration established regulations explicitly designed to accelerate the adoption of “ambitious prizes in areas of national priority.”

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced nearly $2 million in Phase I and Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards to 12 U.S. businesses. These awards provide funding to help companies develop technologies that could lead to commercial and public benefit.

“We are delighted by the high quality of SBIR proposals we received, and congratulate all the awardees,” says Phillip Singerman, associate director for innovation and industry services at NIST. “Over the past year, NIST updated the solicitation process to focus on critical national priorities and provide maximum opportunities for businesses that are just starting out. With three-fourths of the Phase I recipients in business fewer than 10 years and two-thirds of them with 12 employees or fewer, the results of the solicitation demonstrate the success of that process.”

Knowledge at Wharton’s picture

By: Knowledge at Wharton

It was 2003, exactly 56 years after Ole Kirk Christiansen bought the first plastic injection molding machine in Denmark to start manufacturing plastic bricks for building-block toys. On the surface, or so it seemed, the LEGO Group had done everything right over that time period.

The company was an iconic name in the toy business. Plastic building-block toys were “LEGOs” in customers’ minds, just like all tissues were Kleenex and all flavored ice pops were Popsicles. LEGO was also rare among big companies in that the firm was still run by the founding family, with Christiansen’s grandson, Kirk, serving as CEO. While LEGO had always looked for new products, after a sales slump in 1993, the firm tripled its offerings, and in 2000 went on a binge of innovation, adding on LEGO-branded electronics, amusement parks, interactive video games, jewelry, education centers, and alliances with the Harry Potter franchise and the Star Wars movies.

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