Back in 2014, Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology studies at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology, and Andy Russell, who was then an associate professor of history at the same institute, had their attention drawn to the latest book written by Walter Isaacson. It was entitled, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.
Somewhat jaded with the ever-present celebration of innovative thinking, they set about organising a conference and movement that would put more focus on people they called ‘the maintainers’. There was even the facetious suggestion of a book entitled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.
Vinsel and Russell were not anti entrepreneurial. Rather, they were of the view that the vast majority of technologies surrounding us and underpinning our lives were not always about the latest innovations. As Vinsel stated at the time, “The vast majority of labour in our culture must not focus on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”
Although they had come to believe that America’s embracing of innovation had led to “a mountain of dubious scholarship and magical thinking”, they still believed in creativity and entrepreneurship. They just felt it was time to give more love to maintenance and maintainers – and to pay a little bit more respect to the people whose jobs are at the core of that. The people who are not superstars, but who just grind it out, day after day.
As the duo outlined in this Freakonomics podcast last year, great societies such as the Romans were not just great innovators. They were also great maintainers, investing time and labour in protecting their roads and their sewerage systems – apparently, in the latter instance, to a much greater extent than some modern cities such as Manilla.
Poor maintenance has huge knock-on repercussions, from crime levels in run-down neighbourhoods to pollution due to badly maintained transport systems. Maintenance is not sexy, a fact recognised by John Oliver and Steve Buscemi here.
The bottom line is: there is nothing wrong with wanting to live on the moon, but maybe we should fix the bus service to Chiswick first. At RebelBio and SOSV, we are already aware of this. Nils Rehmann, CEO of Canuevo can testify to this. While recognising the clamour for completely new therapeutics for a range of diseases, they had spent years looking aghast at the underutilisation of existing cannabinoids. An underutilisation seemingly determined by misunderstanding and misinformation as well as misuse. “Now, as many more governments are moving to legalise cannabis for medicinal use” says Canuevo CSO, Daniel Carbo “we have to address the critically important issue of formulation and release of compounds such as CBD (Cannabidiol)” For Rehmann, who along with Carbo founded Canuevo earlier this year, the prosaic holds no fear. “While some people out there are willing to put themselves through the ordeal of discovering brand new molecules, we already have compounds that show such a strong body of evidence for their applicability behind them, that need to be become standardised and measurable, proper therapies”.
Probably the greatest irony of all of this, however, is that great entrepreneurs know the value of doing the more mundane. They realise that great empires cannot be built on sand; there needs to be systems, scaffolding and people to make spreadsheets if spreadsheets are needed.
For our start-up teams, one of their first experiences of entering an SOSV program is taking on the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which is expertly administered and explained by SOSV roaming mentor Alan Clayton and business coach Sally Hudson The test, to the uninitiated, is a measure to determine one’s thinking preferences. And yes, we all have preferences. This is not a personality test, but a useful cognitive understanding tool created by American creativity researcher William ‘Ned’ Herrmann while at General Electric.
To briefly and clumsily explain the theory behind the test, we can break our thinking into four patterns:
- Blue zone=Analytical, which equates to looking for what the final output would be. This type of thinking is logical, factual, critical, technical and quantitative;
- Green zone=Sequential, which is favoured by people who go through administrative processes. This type of thinking is structured, organised and involves complexity or planning;
- Red zone=Interpersonal, which points to a lot of our emotional intelligence and our value for it. This type of thinking is kinesthetic, emotional, spiritual and sensory;
- Yellow zone=Imaginative, which is that preferred by people thinking beyond what comes in the short term and those who could be seen as visionary. This type of thinking is visual, holistic, intuitive, innovative and conceptual.
Thomas Meaney, who originally conceived of Cell-Free Tech, would see himself as very much the latter (a yellow, ‘blue-sky’ thinker on HBDI). A physicist by training, he was always looking to other sciences to see how he could apply his expertise to emerging, non-traditional scientific fields, like synthetic biology.
Tom organised the UK’s first bio-hackathon for just that reason. It was during this that he came upon the idea of seeing cell contents as merely machine parts that could be disassembled, packaged and used separately.
Cell-free products allow anyone to play at being a molecular biologist, bypassing the regulations on the use of living GM organisms. It was only after a chance meeting with the more analytical Ian McDermott (Cell-Free’s ‘CSO’), that he found someone with whom he could work to turn his ideas into concrete products
Ideally, we should all have a balance between each thinking pattern, yet the simple fact is that we tend to prefer to engage in one or two types when all four are really necessary to some extent.
The upshot of understanding our thinking patterns is that it allows us to recognise and work on our blindspots. It also, however, helps us to avoid the error of putting ourselves in charge of something that might be far from our natural talent and may not make us happy. A team full of people whose only interest is in blue-sky thinking is likely to end in chaos, whereas a team rich in process thinking may simply overburden the enterprise with bureaucracy. A balance is essential. At our upcoming demo day, Nuleaf Tech’s, Rachel Major present her vision of future water in cities and what that will mean for the way we all live. In the same talk, you will also hear of the specifics including the module design of their product and its technical specificities. This rounded presentation is the result of Nuleaf having a team capable of engaging with all aspects of their work.
And you can bet that great entrepreneurs and startups know the value of structure. Being an entrepreneur is just not about repeating the words ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneur’ and, more recently, ‘disrupt’.
Being a great entrepreneur is about recognising and delivering what is truly needed for its own sustainability.