3 innovation practices that made Galileo Galilei successful

Open innovation is a new approach to doing business.

Well, not really. Open innovation has been around for hundreds of years. For example, the story of Galileo Galilei and the telescope from the 17th century shows how connecting people and ideas led to significant scientific, technological, and business progress.

But unlike hundreds of years ago, we now have the internet. And the internet enables us (at least in principle) to take this “connecting ideas and people” approach to a world wide scale.

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 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 (which is where Galilei spent most of his time). This is probably how Galilei first saw occhialini (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 “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 is what 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 (from 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.

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, which were a lot harder to make than the concave eye pieces.

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, rather than trying to make the all-perfect convex front lens for his telescopes, he made bigger lenses that were very good at the center, and covered their poorer outer parts with a simple mechanical iris.

How can we scale Galilei’s approach?

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, unlike Galilei in the 17th century, we now have the web. This enables us to take Galilei’s approach to an entirely new scale. Via our computer, we can now “travel” to conferences, companies, or research institutions anywhere in the world.

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. Addressing these and other challenges, and getting better and better at it, is the reason we build 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!

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