Infectious Innovation

Some say it’s “in the air.”

In a recent New Yorker article by that name, Malcolm Gladwell reports that numerous inventions were actually simultaneously contemplated in parallel, but unknown to each other, undertakings. Other inventions were under-discovered until the right champion came along. In a far more startling observation, he reports of the efforts by Nathan Myhrvold, former head of Microsoft’s research division who left there as a Microsoft multi-millionaire and formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. Based on the idea of “invention sessions,” Myhrvold brings together “very clever people” to tease out ideas in one-day brainstorming sessions. Hoping for a six pack of good ideas, this first invention session in 2003 came up with over fifty ideas for further study. They have been at it ever since with a backlog of over 3000 ideas.

Could this be a new venture capital paradigm?

Rather than just looking for the MIT-educated inventor who needs a few bucks to make the next big thing, might a firm mimic Myhrvold, bring together a bunch of people who might not hang together regularly, and just see how it turns out? Well, closer to (my) home, Flagship Ventures has been doing something similar, holding forums addressing topics such as the medical frontiers of the mind in “Brain Futures,” on energy and resource consumption in “Sustainability,” and most recently “Bones, Boxes, and Biology” exploring limitations in regenerative and restorative procedures for an active, athletic, but aging, boomer generation.

These sessions brought together academics, researchers, engineers, clinicians and business development people. While Flagship personnel participated, the heavy lifting was done by the invited guests. The results: Flagship Partners reports the energy and intensity of the discussions were palpable with a high level excitement, but expectations of immediately actionable investment opportunities are intentionally set low. This isn’t about next quarter or even next year’s investment, but about the alchemy of innovation. Steve Ricci, a Flagship partner comments, “One thing I would like to emphasize is that Flagship sees these exploratory forums as more a give back to the entrepreneurial ecosystem than as a deal source.”

As Gladwell writes, “Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination.”

Perhaps the helpful catalyst is the heat of collaboration, a veritable virus of good ideas cascading from one to another. Perhaps these scientific jam sessions, like those held by Intellectual Ventures and Flagship Ventures, will be the new stuff of legend. Let’s hope more venture capital firms consider the Flagship model.

After all, they are called Flagship!

Gail Long is CEO of ACG Boston, a chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth.