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In the 1960s, Eric von Hippel , ...

Posted Sep 12 2008 11:57pm

In the 1960s, Eric von Hippel, now a professor of management at MIT, was a first-year graduate student in psychology at Berkeley. He had been having a hard time getting in touch with his advisor. One day, in Tolman Hall, he saw his advisor go into his office. This is my chance, he thought. He went into his advisor’s office. No one was there! He realized his advisor must be hiding behind his desk. It would have been too embarrassing to confront him, so he left the office (which might now be my office).

He left graduate school, too, became an inventor, and started a company. His company needed a certain type of fan. He went to a fan company and asked them to make it. It can’t be done, they told him. What you are asking for violates the laws of physics. So he went to engineers at Princeton, who designed the fan for him. He went back to the company with blueprints. They agreed to make the fan if he would pay all the new-equipment costs and buy 10,000 of them. To the company’s surprise, other people wanted this fan, too, and it became a popular product. The fan company placed ads in a trade publication with the headline “They said it couldn’t be done.”

Von Hippel studies where innovations — specifically, new products and services — come from. He argues that they come from users far more than manufacturers appreciate. Just as I believe self-experimentation is a more powerful source of biomedical progress than mainstream scientists appreciate. I learned of his work only yesterday (he gave a talk here) but I’m sure it has a lot to teach me.

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