One often hears that “open innovation” is a new approach. In fact though, open innovation has been around for hundreds of years. For example, let’s look at Galileo Galilei’s innovation practices. The 17th century story of Galileo and the telescope shows how connecting people and ideas led to significant scientific, technological, and business progress.
Open innovation has been practiced for centuries. Galileo Galilei is an early example of the success of these practices.
There are three things that Galilei practiced, and that made him a strong innovator:
- A strong network
- Hands-on innovation
- A ‘science and business’ mindset
I will describe each of these innovation practices in more detail below.
Galilei, an entrepreneur scientist
I recently read a great book about Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, Das Weltgeheimnis, by Thomas de Padova. What I found particularly interesting in this book is the story of Galilei and the telescope.
Here is a summary of this story, shortened, translated, and rephrased in my own words:
“In the summer of 1609, Paolo Sarpi, a statesman and scientist from Venice, told Galilei about new optical devices called “occhialini”. Occhialini can magnify distant objects. Sarpi had heard about occhialini through his network of diplomats. Through this network, Sarpi also heard and then told Galilei about a traveling businessman who sold occhialini in Padova and Venice. Venice is where Galilei spent most of his time. This is probably how Galilei first saw occhialini. However, it is unclear whether he purchased one. Occhialini at the time cost about four times Galilei’s annual salary. Then, less than three weeks later, on 21 August 1609, Galilei presented his first telescope to the public. Within a few months after this initial presentation, Galilei had surpassed his competitors in the European telescope market. And he had laid the foundation for his scientific discoveries (e.g. the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus).“
Passage from the book “Das Weltgeheimnis” by Thomas de Padova.
How could Galilei make such rapid technological and scientific progress, and at the same create a business model for himself, manufacturing and selling high quality telescopes?
Galilei did not invent the telescope from scratch. And he was not the only one who experimented with telescopes in a systematic way. For example, Thomas Harriott in London might have been the first human to view the moon through a telescope. And Middelburg in the Netherlands had a whole community of world class opticians (a “Silicon Valley of optics”, perhaps, at the time). Yet, Galilei beat them all to many scientific discoveries and to successful business as well.
Here are the innovation practices that I think made him so successful:
1. A strong network
Galilei had an active and diverse network of academics, manufacturers, businesspeople, diplomats, and others. Through this network, Galilei obtained high quality, clear glass, for instance. His source was his friend and drinking buddy Girolamo Magagnati, who had a glass manufactury in Murano. This glass enabled him to produce high quality telescopes. And, of course, he readily adopted and improved upon ideas from others that he found valuable.
Related reading: What makes a good innovation analyst?
To Galileo Galilei, open innovation was not “copy and paste”. Instead, he improved upon ideas from others that he found valuable.
2. Hands-on innovation
Galilei was no ivory tower scientist. Rather, he had his own construction lab, where he could rapidly test and improve ways of manufacturing telescopes. For instance, he systematically worked out ways to produce better convex front lenses. Convex front lenses were a lot harder to make than the concave eye pieces that existed back then.
By the way, such a hands-on approach to innovation might also be one of the best ways to escape innovation theater (or not getting trapped there in the first place).
3. A ‘science and business’ mindset
Galilei was not just scientist or just businessman. He combined both worlds. Perhaps this enabled (or forced) him to sometimes come up with pragmatic solutions. For instance, he did not even try to make the all-perfect convex front lens for his telescopes. Instead, he made bigger lenses that were very good at the center. Then he covered their poorer outer parts with a simple mechanical iris.
How can we scale Galilei’s innovation practices?
There are many things that haven’t changed since Galilei. We still maintain professional networks, go to meetings and conferences, visit companies and R&D organizations, and generally try to connect science, technology, and business.
But we have something that Galilei didn’t have: the internet. The internet enables us to scale Galilei’s approach. Via our computer, we can now “travel” to conferences, companies, or research institutions anywhere in the world. Regardless of our location, we can connect to other innovators from around the globe.
The internet enables open innovation at scale and connects us to innovators across the globe.
In practice, things are not quite that easy, of course. Bringing innovation sensing to web-scale has well-known and daunting challenges. Apart from the sheer amount of information, this information is spread across millions of sources, and there are no standards as to how the information is presented. Of course, this challenge is the reason why we built Mergeflow.
Now, one question at least remains: Would Galilei have used Mergeflow? We do not know, of course, but we sure hope he would have!