Sarah Miller Caldicott thinks Thomas Edison has a lot to teach us about innovation. So much so that she spent three years of her life studying Edison and his creative process. She shared some of her findings at the second Clean Tech Summit at the University of North Carolina in February.
March 4, 2015
What the Triangle Can Learn From Edison
Advice for building an innovation ecosystem from a Thomas Edison guru and heir
Caldicott discussed her ideas and her role in RTP’s new Midnight Lunch Lab during a panel on building great innovation ecosystems. She was joined by UNC’s Judith Cone and Sarah Lawrence of RTI International. The three women each brought a unique perspective on what it takes to grow an innovation ecosystem, an important goal for making this region a leader nationally for launching new businesses. But Caldicott’s perspective was especially unique.
Caldicott’s admiration of Edison isn’t random—she’s his great grandniece. After years in the corporate world at Global 100 firms, she now dedicates her career to helping organizations understand the innovation process as founder of the Chicago consulting firm, Power Patterns.
“Innovation is probably one of the toughest things that we can navigate as executives,” says Caldicott, speaking from her experience working with companies such as Quaker Oats/Pepsi. “I think it’s the highest bar of anything we can learn to do over the course of our careers.”
Caldicott cites Edison’s ability not just to invent new technologies, but his ability to translate that technology into commercially-viable products. He was ultimately a pioneer in several different industries from telecommunications to electrical power. At the time of his death in 1931, Edison’s inventions were valued at $500 billion.
“How can you devise five industries in that amount of time? Edison was working very rapidly and very efficiently to do this. Not only was he sustaining innovation across these decades, he was generating revenue and profit,” Caldicott says.
Edison’s ability to innovate was no accident according to Caldicott. He had an intentional process through which he made discoveries and drew connections from different fields. In his first private laboratory, he was famous for hosting “midnight lunches,” in which he brought in the diverse group of experts with whom he was working to discuss their projects and ideas.
“Through this process of casual exchange, patterns were recognized,” Caldicott says.
She was so impressed with this process that she wrote a book about it. And the book inspired a group of Raleigh-Durham innovators to start a Midnight Lunch Lab at Research Triangle Park, in partnership in Caldicott. The first of its kind in the country, the Lab is a collaborative environment in which engineers meet to discuss ideas and collaborate.
“There is an incredible resource space here—there is an incredible level of expertise around innovation. The Research Triangle Park itself is based around the principle of R&D and all that it can create,” Caldicott told the crowd at the Clean Tech Summit.
She says that RTP was a natural choice given the collaboration of entrepreneurs, private industry and government that is already taking place, claiming, “Edison would be excited about what’s happening here.”
According to UNC, North Carolina ranks fifth among states for the creation of new clean energy jobs. Innovation in renewable energy such as wind and solar, as well as more efficient, environmentally-friendly transportation and water systems contribute to that ranking. The lab is open to any entrepreneur, of course, and the lab’s goal is for innovation of all kinds to happen there.
That leads to another of Edison’s strengths—the ability to recognize patterns throughout a variety of different disciplines and to build relationships and collect perspectives from different people. That’s what made him an exceptional innovator, Caldicott says. He believed innovation could only be achieved through deep networks.
Caldicott says we can learn lessons from this when building entrepreneurial ecosystems today, particularly here in the Triangle.
“If you look at a place like RTP and this entire region, there are capabilities and areas of expertise that are not connected. Some of this capability is stranded. So if you want to begin connecting these things, we have to do it intentionally.”
As special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina and interim director of the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise, Cone understands the problem of stranded assets first hand. One of the challenges she faced when arriving at UNC was the silo effect that plagues many large organizations like universities.
“It’s an amazing campus… yet often we work in silos and so a part of the innovation ecosystem that we build is to cross boundaries,” she says.
Under Cone’s leadership, UNC now hosts monthly forums in which a working group of about 120 people from all over campus come to share ideas and learn about each other’s work. Speaking from experience, the gatherings help everyone involved in the innovation and entrepreneurship community feel connected to the entire campus and feel like a part of a larger mission.
Cone says the purpose of building an innovation ecosystem at a major research university like UNC is to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. Traditionally, universities have been really good at generating new knowledge and passing it on to students. The time has come for universities to teach students how to apply that knowledge to real-world problems.
“We needed to find a way to start focusing on outcomes, collaborate with the private sector, government, not-for-profits, and to be highly connected to deliver more innovations perpetually, not just occasionally,” she says.
Cone says the best way UNC can do this is to graduate “I-shaped students.” In other words, students who have been prepared to go into the world and be innovators.
“If we did nothing else and we prepared these great students that are in the audience today to have that kind of experience at Carolina and we launch innovators out into the world, we change the world,” she says.
Lawrence, who studies the intersection of clean technology and economic development as senior manager of economic development at RTI, believes Research Triangle Park and the Triangle community has unique advantages due to its history.
“I think one of our greatest strengths and differentiators is the collaboration and culture for collaboration that has occurred for 60 years now between government, business and universities,” she says.
While we cannot know for sure, it’s likely Thomas Edison would have felt at home in the Triangle.