An unfortunate notion

This I wrote as a brief welcome to the new Fellows (doctoral students in the Life Sciences and Engineering) entering the UC Davis Graduate School of Management’s Business Development program:

There is a shared notion that good–no, great–ideas will take the world by storm. This is an unfortunate notion, as history shows us that a great idea often lies dormant for years, if not centuries, before finally being recognized.

Consider Fleming’s 1928 discovery of Penicillin, the antibiotic that saved millions of lives in WW2 and since. The story we tell is of how he accidentally discovered the properties when a culture of staphyloccus was contaminated with mold. But let me tell you another story.

In 1500 BC, written records tell us of the practice of applying mold to infected wounds. Moving forward 3000 years, in the 1860s: Louis Pasteur, notes that mold inhibits the growth of anthrax but decides to work instead on vaccines. In 1871, William Lister finds samples contaminated with mold prevent bacterial growth. In 1874, William Roberts observes the penicillin mold prevents bacterial contamination, but fails to pursue his findings further. In 1897, Ernest Duchesne publishes a doctoral dissertation in which he identifies, refines, and successfully tests–in animal trials–an extract from the penicillin mold.

Finally, in 1928, Fleming publishes an article in which he describes the antibiotic effects of penicillin on staphylococci bacteria. His article sits for a decade until, in 1939, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey find Fleming’s article and build on his work. Their initial success in purifying the drug and testing it in animals and a human ends tragically as their supplies prove too little. In 1941, Florey travels to America (across U-boat infested waters) in search of facilities large enough to grow and process penicillin mold. He finds them in Emeryville, where Chiron now sits. Thus is born the industrial production of penicillin that immediately saves millions of lives in WW2.

The notion that great ideas take the world by storm is a tragic one. It took 3000 years for mold-based antibiotics to take the world by storm, and roughly 50 years from the first animal trials. And this is not the exception. From the discovery of a cure, it took over 150 years for British scientists to successfully cure scurvy by packing citrus fruits on all naval ships. It took almost 75 years for aseptic handwashing to be accepted and implemented in hospitals.

And between Duschenes 1897 dissertation and Florey’s industrial application, 10 million people died during WW1, many from infection.

The unfortunate notion that ideas will take the world by storm is at the core of this program’s vision. Great ideas are nothing without the willingness and ability of those who recognize their potential to make them great. It’s not enough to write a dissertation or publish an article.

To truly make a dent in the universe, you must also bring that idea into the market in ways that do the most good for the most people. That means understanding the importance of the innovation process in moving ideas from the lab into the market, the importance of intellectual property in sharing the value of new ventures, the importance of building communities made up of investors, suppliers, customers and even competitors.

We conceived of and built this program to give doctoral students in science and engineering the knowledge necessary to not only bring their ideas into the world, but to take the world by storm. We expect no less of them.

2 thoughts on “An unfortunate notion

  1. It’s a great point.
    Whenever I hear somebody say they have a great idea, but they fear someone will take it because it’s “just too good,” I point out how foolish this is. Yes, its possible that an idea will be stolen, but bringing an idea to life–even an insanely great, highly profitable one–involves capital, risk, and TONS of work. Even among the rarified set that has all three to spare, they’re too busy with their own ideas.
    Great ideas are never enough–as you say, some of the best lie dormant for literal ages before they manage to come to life.

  2. […] One of the more powerful examples, of course, is penicillin (An Unfortunate Notion), which was discovered, in various ways, long before Fleming. And, of course, the ultimate disdain in academia is calling someone’s work “old wine in new bottles,” which presumes your generation was the original winemaker. […]

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