Gigaom

Inventor's Latest Project: Superlab for Cleantech


Alex Hornstein of The Solar Pocket Factory holds up a prototype of the project

Courtesy of The Solar Pocket Factory via Kickstarter

Alex Hornstein of The Solar Pocket Factory holds up a prototype of the project

Kwun Tong, Hong Kong—Shawn Frayne, inventor of the award-winning “wind belt” and co-creator of the Kickstarter-launched Solar Pocket Factory, is used to waiting. Lucky for me. The first time we met, I was running late. But there was Frayne, sitting calmly on the top step of the subway station stairs, typing away on his laptop in the gray November afternoon.

In Frayne’s line of work, patience is more than a virtue. While startups race their products to market, impatient for revenue, market share, returns, and exits, inventions can take serious time. Look, for example, at Frayne’s biggest moneymaker to date: reusable, inflatable packaging that he first dreamed up back in 2005. Frayne quickly assigned his invention to packaging giant Sealed Air Company, but the first commercial product, Wonderfil Wrap Inflatable Packaging, didn’t launch until late December 2012—a month after our meeting at the train station.

Waiting an extra 20 minutes for me? No big deal.

Frayne took me to the squat, industrial office tower where his company, Haddock Invention, is based. The building’s dominant design aesthetic, as in many Chinese buildings, is concrete and dust. Inside, though, a wall of windows cast sunlight onto an array of desks, workshop counters, power tools, prototypes, storage bins, and couches. Small art pieces and potted plants were scattered around the room, and the lab was in a pleasant state of disarray, as the team was doing a test build of a Solar Pocket Factory prototype.

Among the innovations that have come out of this room, the biggest might not be a product, but an idea: that in the future, innovation won’t happen under the big tents of deep-pocketed companies. Instead, it will happen through the collaboration of small, independent labs like this one.

That’s why Frayne and his partners have started the Ocean Invention Network—a superlab of like-minded inventors with a common aim—to reduce carbon emissions worldwide, dramatically and affordably.

In his senior year at MIT, Frayne took a class on creating appropriate technologies for developing countries. The class eventually formed the basis for MIT’s innovative D-Lab program; it also helped shape Frayne’s thinking about how invention happens.

In the class (and later as an intern in Haiti) Frayne worked on ways to make fuel from agricultural waste a viable alternative to charcoal. To do so, they wanted to let local farmers make the ag-waste briquettes in the off-season. That meant dropping the size and price of the equipment used to make the briquettes from $20,000 to $50.

Hitting those price points wasn’t possible by simply improving the existing designs, so the team looked for—and found—alternative ways to approach briquette making. Instead of limiting the team’s success, designing with “more severe cost and user-experience constraints” inspired creativity and helped the team move from innovating within an existing technology framework to inventing an entirely new one. That was the “aha” moment for Frayne.

What worked, Frayne realized, was the different skills and experience the project’s partners brought to the table. “I got really into the idea of designing and inventing new products with teams in developing countries, combined with teams in wealthy countries,” he says. “I saw the advantages of how that could lead to new ideas faster than if these were generated in just one place.”

Over the last 200 years, inventing has been characterized by a soup-to-nuts approach that encompassed everything from R&D to product sales, Frayne explains. That process required companies to aggregate large numbers of talent in one place, on one payroll. “It’s what was done at Edison’s labs and Bell Labs. It’s what Tesla did,” he says.

If you want to work on radical innovations that can have a real impact, he says, “your only option has been to go into a big company like GE (GE), work your way up, become the CTO, and have influence that way,” he says. But big company execs don’t have the same agility as the independent inventor to pursue new ideas and pivot quickly.

Today, Frayne believes that real innovation, real invention, requires a new approach. “The problems of the world are so globalized, and the information and talents needed to solve those problems are so spread out, that it’s a fool’s errand to try and pull all that talent to one place,” he says.

Particularly in a field like cleantech, disruptive innovations require expertise in a huge number of areas. Look at the solar industry, and you’ll see what he means: Chemistry, electrical engineering, biology, hardware manufacturing, software development, mechanical engineering, and supply chain management all play critical roles in the sector.

With that kind of diversity, Frayne says a new approach to innovation needs to emerge—one that embraces distributed work styles and novel collaboration. That’s the idea behind the Ocean Invention Network, which Frayne helped launch last year. He likens the model to indie bands that have different styles and strengths, but often collaborate on joint performances or side projects.

To extend the metaphor, the Ocean Invention Network is an indie rock supergroup of the cleantech scene; Haddock Invention, which opened shop in 2006, is on lead guitar, while Mantis Shrimp Invention, opened in Manila by Alex Hornstein in 2012, hits the drums. (The Solar Pocket Factory, in this scenario, is their hit single.)

Being part of the network, Frayne imagines, will let small labs benefit from the breadth and diversity of a big-company R&D team while remaining as nimble as an “ongoing perpetual startup.”

While most startup founders in Silicon Valley drop everything to focus on one idea for a period of less than 10 years, inventor labs are expected to keep several balls in the air at all times. In the Bay Area, a few groups are attempting this type of inventor’s approach, including Saul Griffith’s Other Lab (Griffith is also a product of MIT). But none have taken such a global approach.

Here’s how the Ocean Invention approach works: Each independent “node” (lab)—comprising 5-10 staff—works on 3-4 projects in parallel. Projects are a mix of experimental inventions, consulting, and product development. When an idea gets enough momentum, partner labs can get involved to help vet, improve, and grow the idea.

Frayne thinks the model can help both amplify good ideas and quickly discard bad ones. “Our lab is better because we work with Alex’s lab,” he says.

Better yet, because the labs can stay focused on their area of expertise, the knowledge gained from the development process is retained within the company, even when an invention matures and gets spun out into its own company. (Haddock, for example, has spun out three companies to date: Humdinger Wind Energy, B-Squares Electrics, and Coho Solar.)

“You can continue to recycle those resources,” Frayne says. “Once a specific product gets to market, it doesn’t end. You’re trying to build something much bigger.”

So far, the labs in Hong Kong and Manila are the only two Ocean Invention partner labs, though the team has relationships with labs in Guatemala, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Frayne is aiming to bring on another full partner lab by 2014, probably also in Southeast Asia. “We are actually finding that travel between labs is important,” he says. “Even in the age of Skype and FedEx, we need to have face-to-face time in the beginning stages.”

Frayne estimates that labs burn between $100,000 and $400,000 each year, and that it will take about two years before they can support themselves on income through licensing of technologies they develop. That’s how Haddock and Mantis Shrimp both got started. Whether that’s a reliable strategy for bringing other labs online is another question that’s still to be answered. Down the road, the network might be able to provide financial support for new labs during their infancy.

Frayne says he hopes the success of collaborative projects, like the Solar Pocket Factory, will draw interest from inventors around the world. “We’re working on it,” he said.

If a superlab of inventors, driven by a common vision for how big ideas can come out of small teams, proves successful, expect to see more like it in sectors well beyond cleantech. One thing’s for certain: New models for creating innovation to solve the world’s most pressing problems are sorely needed.

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