Corporations can do more than just throw money at innovation efforts. Photo via Getty Images

I vividly remember, it was a typical Tuesday at Houston Exponential, and I’m sipping maybe my third coffee of the morning when the phone rings.

On the line is yet another hopeful voice from a newly minted innovation group at a "big company." They lay out their vision: “We’ve got this new innovation group! It’s me — a tech enthusiast who’s been yelling into the corporate void about needing to shake things up for the last two decades — plus a data scientist who loves numbers more than people, and a procurement guy who… well, procures stuff. And here’s the kicker: they’ve handed us $60 million to put to work. But here’s the catch — this treasure needs to be turned into a groundbreaking innovation that will dazzle the C-Suite, in about six months.”

I chuckle then sigh, because I’ve heard this story not once or twice, but about a dozen times over. And unfortunately, each of those grand plans crashed faster than a shooting star burning out over the Texas night sky — brilliant, swift, and leaving us wondering what might have been. Why? Well, let’s dig into some observations from my time working with institutional innovators from around the world and uncover just why throwing money at innovation like confetti at a wedding isn’t the quick fix big companies hope it will be.

The big miss here is a deep understanding of and ability to articulate the challenges. Innovation isn’t a highway where you can just press the gas and speed straight to Mt. Scale. It’s more like a winding country road with breathtaking views, unexpected potholes, and the occasional bewildered chicken crossing your path. For institutional innovators — the brave souls charting the course through this ever-changing landscape — the journey is filled with excitement, challenges, and the promise of discovery.

In my first hand experience mentoring over 500 startups and corporations, I’ve seen that the magic of innovation doesn’t come from a deep-pocketed budget but from a deep understanding of the problems we aim to solve. If you can view challenges through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, not just through the monochrome lens of one industry, you find the alternate routes that, while not exactly shortcuts, do keep you from turning down dark alleys and dead ends. A key observation here is that solutions to hard problems often lie in adjacent industries.

For example, consider how biomimicry has led to inventions like Velcro, inspired by burrs' ability to stick to animal fur, or how bullet trains in Japan were designed to mimic the kingfisher's beak for better aerodynamics. These are just a few examples of how solutions to complex problems often reside right in front of us or in the industry next door. Right here in Houston, Pumps & Pipes is a glowing example of how experts from Energy, Life Science and Space converge on similar problem sets with wildly different perspectives and applications.

Imagine if the engineers at NASA sat down for tacos with teachers from the local high school, or if doctors brainstormed with video game designers over a game of pickleball. Sounds fun, right? But it’s also where the magic happens. When we step out of our industry bubbles, we find that the solutions to our biggest problems often come from the most unexpected places.

So how do we begin to find these solutions? It all starts with a clear and clearly articulated challenge statement.

A crucial factor in encouraging organizations to look beyond traditional industry boundaries is to foster a deep understanding of problem-solution fit (you can read more about Problem - Solution fit in my last article here) and that means a deep understanding of the Problem. By guiding problem holders to dig deep into the nuances of the problems they aim to address, we expand their perspective. Once a comprehensive grasp of the problems are established, new pathways for solutions organically emerge. To do this you must broaden the collective thinking to the point where solutions from other industries become not just viable but often the most effective approach. My favorite quote on this subject is that “people don’t need a ¼ inch drill bit, they need a ¼ inch hole, and really they don’t need a ¼ hole, they need to hang a picture and when framed in that context, a command strip is more effective at solving the problem.”

So how do we do this? It’s easy, just continuously ask "why" or “why does this matter to your customer” to peel back the layers of the initial problem statements to reveal underlying causes or first principles. Ok this is actually much harder than it sounds but when organizations are guided through exercises to distill their challenges into first principles and more universal problem statements, a transformation occurs, resulting in several benefits:

  1. Expanding Solution Horizons: By elevating the problem discussion beyond industry-specific issues, the range of potential solutions widens remarkably.
  2. Universal Problem Statements: Restating the issues into more universal terms unlocks innovative approaches and solutions previously unseen.
  3. Enhanced Solution Fit and Success Probability: This reframing leads to solutions that are not only more fitting but also stand a higher chance of successfully being adopted and integrated and thus resolving the underlying issues.
  4. Increased Buy-In: These solutions are and are perceived as more novel and thus receive increased buy-in across the organization when moving towards adoption.

The critical lesson here is the power of abstracting the problem. By pulling back from the immediate and specific issues and reinterpreting them into broader, more universally applicable challenges, we can tap into a richer vein of solutions. This approach not only broadens the scope of potential innovations but also increases the alignment and effectiveness of the solutions we pursue.

The art of crafting challenge statements that are both broad enough to inspire innovative thinking and specific enough to be actionable is crucial. These statements serve as beacons, guiding both internal and external innovation efforts towards solutions that are not bound by conventional industry norms. By framing challenges in a way that invites diverse perspectives, organizations unlock innovative solutions that transcend traditional boundaries, fostering a more expansive and inclusive approach to problem-solving.

Turning lofty ambitions into tangible results begins with understanding that innovation isn’t just about flashy gadgets or the latest buzzwords. It’s about solving real problems for real people. This means rolling up our sleeves, listening intently, and sometimes realizing that the solution isn’t a high-tech wonder but perhaps something as simple and elegant as a command strip instead of a hole in the wall.

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Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

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Houston organization selected for program to explore future foods in space health

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.