Harnessed Serendipity

In the late 1960s Spencer Silver, a chemist at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, was hard at work developing a super strong adhesive.  Eventually, however, what he produced was fantastically weak glue.  But Silver simply refused to allow his “failed” experiment to dissipate into the ether.  So do you know what he did?  He did precisely what scientists don’t do often enough: he started talking to people and asking for help.  He gave formal company presentations, he dragooned colleagues in the hallway, and he generally chatted with anyone who’d listen.

For five years he couldn’t find a viable application; a purpose for his weak glue. Then one Sunday Silver’s colleague, Arthur Fry, himself a chemical engineer, was failing to keep up with his hymn book in church.  He liked to cut  pieces of paper and use them as bookmarks, but they fell to the floor when he opened the page.  On this Sunday Fry recalled Silver’s lecture and the connection was made. He went back to work, placed Silver’s shoddy adhesive on the back of yellow scratch paper, and helped his employer (since renamed 3M) create one of the most successful franchises of the 20th century.  Today Post-It Notes bring in over $1B in annual revenue, and have become a cultural icon.

Ok. So let’s rewind for a second and imagine that the invention-to-application cycle didn’t take five years, but rather happened in say… a few weeks?  It would have introduced every day people to a helpful product five years earlier.  It would also have added another half-decade of patent-protected revenue to 3M’s top-line.

How can discoveries and solutions come together quicker? Silver had weak glue – that didn’t solve his original problem, but it was a solution nonetheless.  It was a key without a lock, an orphan answer.  Silver’s brilliance wasn’t even the glue – it was searching high and low for a lock his weak glue could open, and to cast his net as widely as he could.  He had a particular background, a particular set of experiences, and therefore a particular lens through which he saw the world’s problems. Obviously, others have different backgrounds, they bring their own biases, education, and experiences to the equation – and therefore see different problems.  Fry was the perfect case: He had a problem that Silver didn’t have, but one that weak glue could solve.  That serendipitous connection created a legendary product.

The problem is that finding a purpose for orphan inventions is far too infrequent.  Too often the problems that emerging science can solve aren’t immediately obvious, and without someone like a Spencer Silver working to bring in more perspectives (and therefore more locks) the discovery usually languishes – and over time the key is forgotten.  Indeed, by some estimates up to 95% of technologies patented by universities never get commercialized. This is tax-payer or philanthropy-funded research that never makes lives better.  And of course you also have incredible science collecting dust in government labs or private skunkworks like 3M’s.

There’s a variety of reasons discoveries may lie fallow.  Oftentimes the science is so cutting-edge or novel, the real-world application isn’t obvious.  And sometimes (as was the case with Post-Its) the unique properties are seen as a hindrance when thinking only about the application it was intended for.  These conceptual frameworks can help us focus on a goal, but these shortcuts fall short when we need to blaze truly novel paths or appreciate problems we didn’t really know existed..

But does it have to be that way? Is it possible to connect all those pieces of dormant science with brilliant people to ensure the potential is realized? This was the thinking behind forming  Marblar.  We wanted to set inert science in motion, to get researchers talking to one another, matching discoveries to problems.

Trust me, as a scientist myself it pains me to think of how many incredible discoveries are just being squandered… forgotten in a lab-book, collecting dust on a shelf, or siloed in a thesis chapter that was read by three people. Sometimes science just needs a fresh pair of eyes to cast the discovery in a new light. Sometimes serendipity needs a boost.

Daniel Perez