Monday, December 31, 2012

Battery Innovation that flows

Liquid Metal Battery Technology - Donald Sadoway (MIT)

Image Source -

We often hear about the goodness of alternative energy, like solar and wind - then what is holding us back from using them ? The primary concern is how do we manage when the Sun is not around in the night or when the wind is not blowing - these concerns shifts our focus to the energy storage technologies.

Currently we use solid state batteries. A fundamental technology evolution trend is to move from solid to liquid - it is easy to predict that the next revolution in energy storage will come from all-liquid batteries. We see evidence for the "TRIZ technology evolution trend of Solid - Liquid - Gas - Field" in many domains.

Donald Sadoway is working on a battery miracle -- an inexpensive, incredibly efficient, three-layered battery using “liquid metal. His Inventive thinking is best described in his own words: "We need to think about the problem differently. We need to think big. We need to think cheap."
TED Talk -

Sadoway's MIT page-

At MIT, Donald Sadoway has been working on a grid-size battery system that stores energy using a three-layer liquid-metal core. With help from fans like Bill Gates, Sadoway and two of his students have spun off the Liquid Metals Battery Corporation (LMBC) to bring the battery to market. Sadoway’s MIT Liquid Metal Battery Startup Adds $15M and Khosla Ventures as Investor


Donald Sadoway is visiting India in March to speak at the MIT Technology Review Emerging Technologies Conference - EmTech 2013 -

Performing in the Surprise Tests of Life

Difficult situations and critical moments are like the surprise tests that were subjected to while at School. By definition, they are surprises but we need to be prepared for it. Gita teaches us how to think and prepare ourselves to handle the difficult situations in our life.

The Hero, Arjuna is a good person and has only noble intentions. He is brave and well-trained in warfare – he was Drona’s best student. He had powerful brothers to support and Krishna as a friend to advise. Despite of all these positive aspects, he was unable to face the situation. All his knowledge and training was of no help. He was reduced to a helpless state and was unable to think and act. If this is is the fate of Arjuna, the great hero, what chances do we have. I may have the best education, secure job, supporting family etc but I may become an Arjuna-when I am confronted with a difficult situation. How do I handle such critical moments in my life? How do I prepare myself ? Who is my friend Krishna ? Where can I find him ? When and How do I listen to him ?

No doubt I need to acquire knowledge and gain expertise – but these alone will not help me at the critical moment. Then what else will help me to face the critical moments ?

As long as Arjuna thought that he was the one who is going to kill his cousins and teachers, he was in confusion and grief. Krishna explained to him that all of us are born, die and re-born – go through several births as per an Universal law. The atman (the in-dweller) is permanent and does not go through any change – the external body is changes just like we change from old clothes to new clothes. Arjuna has to only do his duty of fighting as a true warrior to defeat the bad people and establish righteousness. He has to discharge his duty which is only a small piece of the grand plan. He should not think that he is doing things out of his free will and confuse himself. It is Krishna who is making Arjuna kill Duryodhana, it is Krishna again who makes Duryodhana do bad things and die ultimately. Though there were warriors fighting in the battlefield, it was Krishna’s Sudarshana Chakra that was going around and killing every body. Life is more like a play where we all come and enact our respective roles. The Director of the Play has the script in place and sets the stage for us to deliver our roles. So Krishna advises us to do our duty by focusing on the action rather than getting distracted by the results of the action. Arjuna understand this funda, becomes self-aware and surrenders himself to Krishna.

Arjuna was lucky to have Krishna explain to him the fundas. But how about us – who is our friend Krishna and where do we find him ? Gita says Atman is our best friend and is also our worst enemy. He is our best friend if we understand him well and is our worst enemy when we don’t understand. So Atman is our Krishna. We can find him inside ourselves – no need to search outside. How do we find him – through introspection and contemplation. Ramana Maharishi asked “Who am I? (naan Yaar)” and found his friend Krishna. Nachiketa asked “What happens to me after death ? Where do I go?” and found his friend Krishna. Krishna talks to us when we listen to him. So we need to free-up some space in our Mind and listen to our in-dweller Krishna.

Beyond our knowledge and expertise, we need self-awareness to meet the critical moments in our life. We need to have clarity on who we are and what our role is. Having figured that out, we should stick to our duty and play our part to the best of our ability. Although our role is pre-determined, how best we play that role depends on our attitude and effort.

Friday, December 14, 2012

3 Paths to Innovation

There were three paths that diverge into the woods
all the three were less travelled
so I wondered which path to take
but as I travelled, I realised
that all the three lead to the same woods

The first path helps the Innovator to arrive at an insight purely through Knowledge. In-depth knowledge arrived a through disciplined analysis. Intimate knowledge of the Customer. Holistic knowledge of the ecosystem. Predictive knowledge of Market and Technology evolution. Intuitive knowledge of the barriers to idea diffusion etc.

The second path helps the Innovator to create value (to the Customer) purely through his devotion to the cause. Many good ideas fail to bring significant value to the Customer. When the Innovator is devoted to the cause - he understands the Customer's pain points well and he is focused on shaping the Idea to create value to the Customer. 

The third path helps the Innovator to exceute the Idea purely through Action. Action deriving out of a well conceived plan and a systematic approach helps the Innovator to overcome all the barriers and take the Idea successfully to the Market. The Innovator acts with full concentration, unwavered by factors such as whether the Innovation will be successful or not.

Bhagwad Gita prescribes these three paths to solves any problem - the path of Knowledge (Jnana marga), the path of devotion (Bhakthi maga) and the path of execution (Karma marga).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

When the Right meets the Left

The right brain helps us to get a new idea. In fact it offers us many new ideas and we register and act on a few of those. The left brain helps us to make the Idea work. Hence it is obvious that we need to learn to use both the right and left guys effectively.

The funny thing about these two neighbours is that they dont get along well (like most neighbours). When the right guy talks, the left guy jumps in and criticizes him. Then the right guy becomes silent.

Real innovation happends when these two guys can sing a duet together.

How do you control these two guys and make them speak in tandem ? - this is a million dollar question for an individual or an organization that wants to excel in Innovation.

Helps comes from the ancient Indian science of Pranayama - balancing the life breath.

I attended a Medidation camp at Adi Sankara Nilayam (Sankaracharya's birthplace in Kerala). The Meditation was taught by Guruji Tejomayananda who head the Chinmaya International Foundation. 

I wake up early in the morning (5-5.30am, when things are realtively quiet), sit comfortably in a posture such that my back is straight (Asana) and start observing my breathing pattern. I stabilize my breathing rate and control my inhaling and exhaling through the two nostrils. I do this atleast 18 times while constanly chanting the Gayatri mantra. I instruct my concious Mind to temporarily let go all its worries and relax totally.I chant Om 18 times - the sound starts from the belly (o), passes through the throat (u) and finally resonates in the head (m).  I spend about 15 mins for this entire ritual.

Pranayama and Meditation helps me to strike a balance between right and left brain thinking. Innovation needs a whole-brain thinking.

Many western innovation experts have started writing about the benefits meditation in Innovation. For example, read Peter Bregman's recent HBR Blog On Meditation

Innovation is a process, unlike Creativity

Creativity is not a process, right ? (Tim Cook, The Apple CEO)

I agree with Tim, Creativity is not a process. In fact many creative folks fear that a process may well wipe out whatever creativity that exists.

But Creativity and Innovation are not synonymous. Innovation is still a process.

Innovation is the process of (a) using creativity to create insightful ideas (b) using these ideas to craete value to the Customer and (c) taking that value-creating idea to the Market successfully.

Creativity will yield good ideas. But a process is still needed to make that creative idea solve real problems and craete value to customer. Without a structured process, it is difficult to take an idea (however great it is) successfully to the Market.

So Tim, Innovation is a process unlike Creativity.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Probing the Innovation Challenge

What is the real challenge in innovation ?

The poor conversion of good ideas into truly valuable innovation. The fundamental issues behind this challenge are - How to create the vision for technology innovation? How to engage the experts and focus their efforts? How to organize the resources? How to deliver the innovations in time?

How is it a challenge?

When ideas don’t evolve into innovations, the inventors get discouraged, technology managers are frustrated, stakeholders are disappointed, technology development stagnates, the business loses confidence in R&D, new product development falls into a coma and ultimately the market suffers.

Who faces the challenge?

Technologists and scientists everywhere face this challenge whether they are in university research groups, government laboratories, industrial R&D teams in large companies, small technology start-ups etc. Though the innovation environment is significantly different across these organizations, the challenge remains the same.

When and where is it a challenge?

The challenge arises typically when the market need is ahead of the technology or when the technology is ahead of the market. The challenge exists in most emerging / developing / fast-growing economies. The challenge is intense, for a late entrant, in technology domains where the IP space is crowded. The absence of government regulation or enforcement favoring the new technology could further make things difficult.

Why is it a challenge?

o Management of IP – Inventors create valuable IP when they patent their ideas and inventions, but most of them don’t realize the importance of monetizing their IP. Even large technology-based businesses and R&D organizations do not effectively monetize their intellectual capital. Sustaining the innovation efforts becomes a challenge when the IP fails to generate value.

o New Product Development – Effective use of technology to differentiate the product in the market is the most reliable way to create a competitive advantage. The creation of a winning product needs a good knowledge of the unmet needs and a focused effort to meet those needs through technology innovations. Typical examples of a desired, but currently unmet, need in technology products could be lower cost, longer life, more user friendly, environment friendly etc. Sustaining the innovation efforts becomes a challenge when the revenue generated by new products is non-existent or delayed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

We dont want your Ideas - give us Innovations !

Year - 2002
Place - India

I : I have a great Idea
Management : We dont want your Ideas - give us Innovations
I :  ?
I :  :(

As technologists (scientists, engineers, inventors), we have the responsibility of focusing our efforts to solve critical problems in the domains of Energy, Healthcare, Food, Water management, waste management etc. Many of these challenges are complex and strongly inter-related. Though we have good insights into the scientific and engineering aspects of these problems, we are far away from visualizing holistic solutions that are affordable and sustainable. I am fully confident that we, the technology community, are ready with the insights to address each of these problems. When we as a community share our insights, pool our resources and further build upon the insights through focused ideation, we will get good ideas. We are all trained to solve such technology problems and we routinely come up with good ideas, hence the journey so far is on well laid roads and smooth terrain.

How do we take our ideas beyond this point? The trek beyond this point is on a difficult terrain, dense fog that blinds us, very less oxygen that make us gasp, slippery slopes that slow us down, unpredictable avalanches that threaten our lives, Yetis and whatnot. We need determination, guts, special gear, reserve oxygen, experienced guides, perseverance and most importantly a clear vision of the summit. There are many barriers that prevent us from realizing the true value from our ideas. Typically, if we start with 100 good ideas, we may end our journey with ~ 5 impactful innovations. Most other ideas get killed as they fail to overcome the barriers on way from Lab to Market.

As an Inventor, aspiring to become to Innovators, I faced this challenge ten years back. Over the last one decade, I have been studying innovative solutions across these domains to understand how the innovators grew their ideas into impactful and holistic solutions. I studied a variety of systematic approaches to innovation such as TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving). I was also fortunate to be mentored by successful innovators in the Industry who had many innovative new products to their credit. I studied in-depth the organizational approaches to Innovation used by Innovative companies – GE, Dow, Honeywell, 3M, Shell, Toyota, Tata etc.

The Greatest Challenge for Indian Technology Innovators

We face a real challenge in evolving our ideas into innovations. However, it is very important that we take our ideas successfully to the market.

“For it doesn’t matter where scientific discoveries and breakthrough technologies originate – for national prosperity, the important thing is who commercializes them”

(Amar Bhide, Where Innovation creates value, The McKinsey Quarterly, 2009).

Let us look at the factors that help a technical idea to reach the market. At the outset, we need to align our ideas to critical problems and /or commercial opportunities. We also need to incubate our ideas till they grow into healthy inventions. The focus during the incubation phase is to establish Proof of Concept (POC), strengthen technical feasibility and assess scalability (and manufacturability).

A fresh technical idea is as delicate as a new born baby and it needs care and private space during its early days. Next, we have to harness the inventions with the right strategy to create valuable intellectual property. The intellectual protection of the invention acts like a fence and allows it to grow and blossom into a strong technology solution. We should learn to effectively monetize our intellectual property to create affordable technology solutions. Finally we need to creatively translate the technology solutions into innovations that solve critical problems and addresses unmet needs in the market. We need to evolve a process that will ensure that the ideas we pursue lead to technology solutions that are truly desirable, technically feasible and economically viable