Innovation Blog

“The Adjacent Possible” – Why One Step Sideways Can Become a Giant Leap Forward

By Shlomo Maital

   

 

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

 Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, Oct. 2010, and his recent Wall St. Journal article, are both worth reading.  The title of the article summarizes its main point.  The secret to innovation is combining odds and ends.  This approach is developed by scientist Stuart Kauffman, whose novel theory of evolution departs from Darwin and uses the brilliant notion of “the adjacent possible” – innovative possibilities that develop from existing products and ideas, that are close enough to be feasible and far enough to be considered creative.  The ‘adjacent possible’ is a powerful notion, because it embodies the notion of options – innovative in ways that create the widest possible variety of options, or ‘adjacent possible’s.  Your innovation may fail, yet ultimately succeed if it opens a door to a powerful innovative adjacent possible.

   Here are two examples, from Finland and India.

   * Finland has a huge paper business, using pulp from its massive forests to make paper for Europe. But paper production generates environmentally-unfriendly waste.  So Finland found ways to mitigate the damage such waste does.  Some of this research involved leveraging biotechnology.  As a result Finland now has a major biotechnology industry. Its ‘adjacent possible’ was the industry adjacent to purifying waste-water effluents from paper mills.

   *  India’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw’s father was a brewmaster at India’s United Breweries, who helped develop Kingfisher beer.  Kiran wanted to study zoology. Her father asked her to consider beer-making instead.  Why in the world would I do that? She asked. Because, he said, it is a science.  From a brewing enzyme business, Mazumdar-Shaw has built Biocon, a global biotech firm.  According to Bloomberg/Business Week*:

“Today the brewing enzyme business Mazumdar-Shaw started in her Bangalore garage in 1978 with 10,000 rupees ($1,200 then) has grown into Biocon, India’s largest biotech company and Asia’s biggest producer of insulin. Biocon is poised to ramp up competition in the $14 billion global insulin market, which is dominated by Novo Nordisk, Sanofi-Aventis, and Eli Lilly. Demand for insulin is expected to increase 20 percent a year through 2015 as the number of diabetics tops 285 million globally, according to market researcher RNCOS.

       “In India’s biggest drug supply deal so far, Biocon and Pfizer (PFE) in October agreed that the Bangalore-based company will produce insulin for the U.S. drug giant, which abandoned that business more than three years ago after taking a $2.8 billion charge on its Exubera inhalable insulin. Biocon will supply four generic insulin products to be sold initially in emerging markets, including India and Brazil.”

    “Today Biocon employs more than 5,300 people. Mazumdar-Shaw, 57, is India’s fourth-richest woman, with a net worth of $900 million, according to Forbes magazine.”

* Wall Street Journal, Steven Johnson, Sept. 25, 2010, “The Genius of the Tinkerer

** Bloomberg/Business Week,  “From brewing, an Indian biotech firm”, Feb. 25, article by Adi Narayan.

 

 

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