from Other Industries
Copyright 2015 MindSumo, Inc.
Breakthrough innovations can sometimes come from unlikely sources. It may seem counter-
intuitive, but recent examples in food manufacturing demonstrate how borrowing technology and
solutions from other industries can oftentimes be the best way to unearth new discoveries.
Meat Packing and
Henry Ford is often lauded as an
American hero for dividing labor
into small specialized tasks to
maximize output and lower
production costs. Many don’t
know that Philip Danforth Armour
was the one who revolutionized
assembly line and mass
production techniques at his
Armour and Swift meat packing
plants in Chicago1. Ford decided
to use a moving assembly line to
build cars only after he toured
Amour’s plants. The automotive
industry led the way for modern
manufacturing by borrowing techniques commonplace in the meat packing industry.
Recently, PPG announced a new type of heat-deflecting coating technology for airplane
exteriors2. The paint allows solar heat to pass through topcoat pigments to a white primer coat
that reflects heat. This keeps aircraft skin up to 25 degrees cooler, reducing cabin temperatures
by 5 to 7 degrees and dramatically reducing air conditioning costs. The key innovation in this
discovery? Mechanics borrowed from the biology and structure of eggplant skin!
The concept of borrowing innovations from other industries is often described as the “diffusion of
technology”. This societal trend is frequently studied – the propagation of mobile phones, the
adoption of the internet, and the widespread use of nanoparticles are great examples of a
diffusion of technology. However, diffusion is a naturally passive process often describing
consumer behaviors. We need a new framework to describe the behavior of actively seeking
technologies and intentionally borrowing them for new applications.
Professors Poetz, Franke, and Shreier from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and
Copenhagen Business School published a study in the Harvard Business Review in 2014 which
looked at this exact question3. Specifically, they were investigating whether new innovations and
ideas are more likely to come from within an industry, from a similar industry, or from an unrelated
photo credit: www.chestofbooks.com Courtesty of Armour & Co.
Carpenters, Roofers, & Skaters
They recruited hundreds of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to contribute their insights to
the problem of workers’ reluctance to use safety gear because of discomfort. The professors
conducted standardized interviews with the participants, presenting the problem of lack of safety-
gear compliance as it pertains to each of the fields (essentially they asked how roofers’ safety
belts, carpenters’ respirator masks, and skaters’ knee pads could be redesigned to increase their
comfort and use). Participants had a few minutes to suggest solutions and a panel of experts
evaluated the suggestions on novelty and usefulness.
People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not
mentally constrained by existing, “known” solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater
the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of solutions.
“Each group was significantly better at
thinking of novel solutions for the other
fields than for its own.”
- Poetz, Franke, & Shreier, Harvard Business Review 2014
Engaging Other Industr ies
Gathering insights from other industries is
often difficult for managers. It requires
assembling focus groups, calling experts,
forming partnerships, or crowdsourcing.
Luckily, the field of crowdsourcing or
“open-innovation” has accelerated at a
rapid pace in the last 10 years. Online
platforms give a voice to individuals who
were previously difficult to reach.
MindSumo is a unique online service, in
that it focuses on the millennial
demographic, and specifically university
students. This group of young innovators
approaches problems from the perspective
of a curious academic not yet tainted by
industry. Just like Poetz, Franke, and
Shreier described, these individuals are not
yet mentally constrained by existing,
MindSumo has worked with nearly 500
companies to launch close to 1,000
projects called “challenges”. Since each
challenge is a competition, dozens and
sometimes hundreds of university students
are competing for recognition and cash. On
average a single project can generate 75-
200 concepts in 30 days.
One interesting finding has been that the
best solutions do not necessarily come
from students who are studying the field
associated with the project content. As
MindSumo CEO Trent Hazy explains,
“When we first started launching projects
on MindSumo, we expected a strong
correlation between a project’s subject
matter and the academic discipline of the
students who had the best solutions.
However, we found that oftentimes the
best solutions come from students that are
studying a completely different field.”
Challenge Winners from Academic
Discipl ines Unrelated to Chal lenge Topic
Sensors from Dishwashers
A recent challenge on MindSumo asked students to think of creative ways to remotely measure
water quality continuously in a specific river location. Michael Sotiriou from Suffolk County
Community College was able to use his familiarity with household appliances to come up with a
creative solution. An excerpt from his solution reads:
“Since every modern dishwasher and laundry machine has a turbidity sensor, it would be cost
effective to use these for this project. Since a turbidity sensor requires flow between its LED and
photocell, the ideal placement would be along the side of the enclosure. This would ensure
undisturbed flow for measuring both turbidity and temperature. To shield the sensor from the
ambient light, it will be necessary to put a shroud over the sensor. This does not have to be more
than a section of pipe with a hole in the middle to fit over the sensor. The pipe should be oriented
such that ends are inline with the flow of water. To prevent light from reflecting in, the inlet/outlet
inside area should be sprayed black to absorb stray light.”
Ken Durand, Head of Innovation at Ericsson’s Atlanta Idea Factory, shared his perspective:
“[Michael’s] solution suggested something in the design that no one had thought of…using a
washing machine sensor that detects the cleanliness of clothes by measuring water
cloudiness. This same technology could help Riverkeepers know problem locations in the
river. By engaging the MindSumo community, we gathered new ideas that we may never have
considered on our own.”
Applying Prosthetic Materials to Ice Cream
In another recent challenge on MindSumo, a student studying Biomedical Engineering at the
University of Utah applied a unique material used for prosthetic limbs to an ice cream mould
concept for a global manufacturer.
“They gave us something that seemed almost impossible at first,” said the student, Joseph. “I
had to go to my knowledge of material sciences, I had to pull out a material we use for artificial
muscles and prosthetics and apply that to food manufacturing. I can’t think of any other place
where I would have had to make that jump or would have been able to.”
The lead on the project shared her experience: “Students have no preconceptions in any of the
spaces that we’re looking. We are thinking of those people who can come up with solutions that
are not mainstream. It’s very intriguing to see people taking a business or non-technical course
and come up with something great.”
photo credit: www.iceco.lt
The evidence from Ford’s manufacturing line, PPG’s recent paint innovation, and the results from
numerous MindSumo projects point to the same conclusion – borrowed innovation is here to
stay, and should be embraced by those not just in food manufacturing, but across all industries.
Looking to external communities for a fresh perspective can help eliminate the “known solutions”
bias described by Poetz, Franke, and Sheier, and lead to new solutions that otherwise would
MindSumo helps organizations crowdsource innovative solutions from bright college students.
Companies post challenges for MindSumo's community of 200,000 undergrads, masters, and
PhDs to solve. Since 2012, the company has hosted nearly 1,000 challenges from companies like
General Mills, Coca Cola, Kroger, Unilever, Kelloggs, and many others. We are backed by top tier
investors, including Google Ventures, and work with over fifty Fortune 500 clients.
For more information, visit http://www.mindsumo.com/innovate or email email@example.com
1 “Commonplace Genius – borrowing ideas from other industries to solve business challenges.” At The Helm – Blog, August 8,
2012. Retrieved: December 5, 2015.
2 Salem Baskin, Jonathan. “PPG Innovation More Than Skin Deep.” Forbes, October 7, 2015. Retrieved: December 5, 2015.
3 Poetz, Marion, Franke, Nikolaus, and Shreier, Martin. “Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry.” Harvard
Business Review, November 21, 2014. Retrieved: December 5, 2015.