UMass Amherst alumnus Tony McCaffrey has received a $724,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support his small start-up company, Innovation Accelerator, Inc., which was founded on the hypothesis that most great discoveries come from sideways thinking. For example, a hitch with the Hubble space telescope was fixed when a NASA engineer took a shower in a German hotel and repurposed the design of the shower head. Likewise, Alexander Graham Bell borrowed his idea for the telephone from the human ear. McCaffrey calls such revolutionary breakthroughs “Eureka Moments.”
With this legacy of thinking out of the box in mind, McCaffrey named his NSF-supported project “SBIR Phase II: An Analogous Search Engine to Accelerate Innovation.” This is the fourth NSF grant for this project, which effectively applies science to the “Eureka Moment” so it occurs more often and more predictably.
Sideways thinking is the bailiwick of Innovation Accelerator, a startup company that creates software to help companies solve their worst nightmares, design their best products, and create their brightest inventions in a scientific, systematic, effective way. The whole point of Innovation Accelerator is to organize ineffectual pondering by individuals and group brainstorming into a perfect storm of inventive ideas. Along the way, Innovation Accelerator uses sideways thinking to inspire a lot of problem solving, meeting of the minds, and glitch busting.
Innovation Accelerator actually accelerated out of McCaffrey’s innovation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The company was the brain child of McCaffrey after he earned his doctorate at UMass Amherst and served as a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for e-Design of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, working under MIE Head Professor Sundar Krishnamurty and doing research on how software can help engineers be more innovative.
The CEO of the startup is MIE alumnus James O. Pearson, president of J.O.P. Consulting. “Everyone wants innovation,” says Pearson. “But what is it and how do you get it? Innovation Accelerator brings science to the art of innovation by defining it and devising software to achieve it.”
McCaffrey explains that “The proposed [NSF-supported] research will further develop Analogy Finder, a novel software platform for conducting analogous search to enhance innovation…The technology enables engineers and scientists to move beyond keyword (literal) search to analogous (semantic) search to find relevant, adaptable solutions from other disciplines.”
Specifically, the software helps engineers search laterally through a patent database to find relevant solutions to their problems that are outside their domains of expertise. The software thus helps inventors think laterally and go beyond the box. The current grant money will be spent on programmers who will improve the lateral search engine and marketers that will help move it into the commercial market.
“Our patent-pending technology is based on the observation that as high as 90 percent of new innovations are really adaptations of existing solutions,” says McCaffrey. “The challenge addressed by this research is how to find these adaptable, existing solutions that are spread across many different fields of study and are described using vastly different jargon. These efforts will greatly increase the discovery of new, innovative solutions to a myriad of engineering problems.”
McCaffrey says that the end result will be many new inventions that could greatly improve American lives in unforeseen ways, including the potential to produce new jobs and tax revenues. These efforts also will benefit intellectual property attorneys to help protect these new inventions in all fields of science and engineering.
Both the company, Innovation Accelerator, and the software, Analogy Finder, evolved from McCaffrey’s UMass doctoral dissertation, which articulated the “The Obscure Features Hypothesis.”
“My 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 overcoming a wide range of cognitive obstacles to invention. 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.
As McCaffrey summarizes his research, “Every human has obstacles to innovating which software can help counteract. Likewise, computers have weaknesses that humans can counter. Designing the proper interaction between humans and computers can significantly increase the number of Eureka Moments.”
The job of Innovation Accelerator is to create a perfect marriage between humans and computers that will unleash an unprecedented level of creativity.