AMHERST, Mass. – Creativity and invention have a wild and unpredictable quality to them, but now a University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher has formed his own company that offers a software package that seeks to tame and rationalize these two important processes.
Anthony McCaffrey has launched his new company, Innovation Accelerator, based in West Brookfield, Mass., and its first product, Analogy Finder software. He has also finalized a licensing agreement with the university’s office of Commercial Ventures & Intellectual Property that allows the company to commercialize the software. McCaffrey is a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for e-Design in the UMass Amherst mechanical and industrial engineering department, a recent doctoral recipient in psychology, and a former elementary school teacher.
McCaffrey’s key idea and the basis of his software flow from a simple observation. He says most creative breakthroughs arise through analogy, or what might be called sideways thinking. When you confront a problem or dilemma, McCaffrey says, it’s highly likely someone has dealt with a variation on that theme in some other field, and by studying how those other solutions work, you can get a jump on how to fix your situation.
The Analogy Finder software will seek out these analogous solutions by hunting through patent databases, research libraries and other sources.
An example McCaffrey likes to use to illustrate his concept is that of a ski company that wanted to stop the “chatter” in its skis. When skiers make sharp turns at high speeds, the edges of their skis can lift from the snow due to vibrations in the body of the skis, causing skiers to sometimes lose control.
The ski company eventually found a solution in the musical instrument business. In some violins, they found, the instrument makers add a special layer to the wood, a metal grid that helps to stabilize the instrument, and reduce unwanted vibrations. The ski company tried a similar solution and was able to significantly reduce the vibration in the skis, effectively dealing with the “chatter” problem.
“My doctoral dissertation was based on the idea that any innovation is built upon something that is commonly overlooked, therefore obscure,” says McCaffrey. “If it were obvious, it wouldn’t have been overlooked.” McCaffrey’s Obscure Features Hypothesis led to a systematic, step-by-step approach to overcome a wide range of cognitive obstacles to invention and that in turn, was the basis of Innovation Accelerator.
Looking at more than 1,100 modern and historical inventions, McCaffrey analyzed how successful inventors overcame various cognitive obstacles to uncover the obscure information needed to solve problems. He found that almost all innovative solutions follow two steps, as articulated by his hypothesis: first, notice an infrequently-seen, obscure feature; and second, build a solution based on that feature.
McCaffrey tells the story of the inventor of reinforced concrete commonly used for skyscrapers and highways. He got the idea at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, where a gardener had made stronger flowerpots by embedding mesh inside of them. That’s a classic analogous solution, he says.
“The key to Analogy Finder,” says McCaffrey,” is that it can find solutions for something else that you can adapt to your own needs.”
McCaffrey’s company, Innovation Accelerator, is also working on other new software products. The next one is called Brainswarming: The Next Generation of Brainstorming. As companies become more global, their workforces spread out across time zones and they need better tools to do online collaborative problem solving. The brainswarming model is a visual way to collaboratively work together online on the same problem, McCaffrey says.
The company is headed by James Pearson, an alumnus of the UMass Amherst mechanical and industrial engineering department who met McCaffrey during the Innovation Challenge business plan competition on campus. They joined forces to create the company and commercialize the software, McCaffrey says.
There has also been media attention to McCaffrey’s ideas and research. Publications such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle have run stories and editorials on the research, and Innovation Accelerator has been covered in blogs operated by Scientific American Mind and the Harvard Business Review.
For more information and to sign up to follow Innovation Accelerator’s progress, go to: www.innovationaccelerator.com