White Space Innovation
The Wide Open Spaces of Innovation
White spaces are exactly as they sound. These are indeed those new-to-the-world offerings that have the potential to truly disrupt the category, and potentially, an industry. While these may be the prototypical "innovations," there is one slight problem: incredibly smart people and organizations go decades without creating a single truly white space innovation, if ever. Consider that while there were 615,243 patents issued in the US in 2014, the vast majority of those patents do not come to commercial fruition, let alone become truly viable white space innovations.
White Space Innovation
These innovations are defined by the fact that they are often radical departures from the established, and may indeed signal a revolutionary change, even if in a small niche. While this revolutionary development may be in a category already established (e.g., biodiesel, computing), the means of creation may be a significant departure from any successful venture before it (e.g., biodiesel from algae in under an hour, quantum processors).
These innovations also have a tendency to have three things in common: long development times, elevated costs, and specialized knowledge. I purposely use the word "tendency" here because there will always be those white space innovations driven by a chance occurrence, or a single genius in a garage somewhere. There will always be those people and organizations that can capture lightning in a jar.
- If successful, these innovations define the space in which others will operate
- Early acceptance by market can drive growth and further separation from peers
- Early success may draw in further talent and ideas
- Intellectual Property protections and proprietary technology
- Appealing to venture capital and investors
- Differentiation is unavoidable
- Unless a wide technological or developmental moat, competitors will likely follow
- Patent protection only covers so much
- Potential for significant development cost
- Potential for significant development cycle time
- Unreliable pipeline of innovation
- Unsuccessful market entry can prove financially damaging
Best Utilized By:
Any organization that can craft a true white space innovation should utilize it to the fullest, but some organizations are better positioned to create them in the first place. Organizations with a significant in-house braintrust, ample resources, and the financial wherewithal to invest in long-term, potentially fruitless research tend to have the edge in creating these types of sustainability-driven innovations. In many cases, we are talking about large corporations, universities, labs, and the like as being the hotbeds of whitespace innovation, although many small "spin offs" are incubated by these larger enterprises every year.
Examples of White Space Innovation
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Work Into Algal and Biomass-Derived Fuels
The PNNL is doing some astounding stuff around biofuels. In one case, seemingly overnight, they produced research about WWII stories of canvas tents being digested in order to find an aggressive fungus to digest rough biomass for efficient use in biofuel creation.
Point Source Power
In a 2013 study, the U.N. found that 6 billion people worldwide have access to mobile phones, a full 1.5 billion more than have access to toilets. Craig Jacobson, Co-Founder of Point Source Power, recognized that many in the world have the need to charge a cell phone, but may be without accessible means to do so. To fill this need, he went about creating a thermal fuel cell with a probe that can be placed into a cooking fire, and which charges either a spare battery or a cell phone directly. It is not only a fascinating development, but one which is built at a bare minimum cost in order to be affordable to those in third world countries.
Please watch the following 3:05 video.
Video: Point Source Power (3:05)
Stonyfield / WikiPearl Edible Packaging
There are a few interesting innovations at play here, but it will remain to be seen if the technology, design, and taste is truly up to the rigors of the supermarket, or if this product will live and die as some sort of novelty. Please watch the following 2:58 video.
Video: Introducing Stonyfield Frozen Yogurt Pearls (0:00)
ON SCREEN TEXT: Stonyfield Organic in collaboration with wiki pearl. Introducing Stonyfield Frozen Yogurt Pearls. Like nothing you've seen (or eaten) before... except in nature.
GARY HIRSHBERG, CHAIRMAN OF STONYFIELD FARM: We began Stonyfield in 1983 with the idea that business should be part of the solutions to what ails our planet. We should attack ideas like waste. Attack ideas like using chemicals. Attack ideas like not treating family farmers well, and ever since the beginning of the company I've been obsessed with packaging. I've always believed that we should use less. In fact my ultimate obsession was always when you finish eating the yogurt, you should eat the cup.
PROFESSOR DAVID EDWARDS, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, FOUNDER OF WIKIFOODS INC.: Wikifoods is a vision of a totally new way in which we package food and beverage, so that we eliminate the wasteful packaging that is so present in food and beverage today. We're using the rules of nature to wrap food and beverage in edible skins like grapes skins, or the white endoderm of a coconut.
GARY HIRSHBERG: I first became aware David's work reading about him in a magazine article. I called him right away because of course this was the dream this is something I've been dreaming about for 30 years.
PROFESSOR DAVID EDWARDS: So I was interested in creating through art and design and frontiers of science, completely new ways of delivering food and beverage. Delivering excitement, and pleasure, and deep nutritional value, and yet with minimal side effects either to human health or to the environment.
GARY HIRSHBERG: The important thing to understand about this technology is it's unlimited. The, the options, the applications, are unlimited. There are meal solutions. There are snack solutions. There are treats. There, it's for kids, it's for adults, it's for one-handed eating which is now very popular. It's for on-the-go culture, but also it's for a conscious culture. So you can have the possibility of food equaling health, and no waste no mess, no footprint, in terms of toxins or anything like that, environmental footprint, and unbelievable taste. I mean that sounds like a complete win for everybody, right? Win, win, win, win, win. And why not?
ON SCREEN TEXT: Launching March 2014. Available exclusively at participating Massachusetts Whole Food Markets
River Street - Cambridge
Fresh Pond Mall - Cambridge
Charles River Plaza - Boston
MarketStreet - Lynnfield