The Birth of an Idea

Are you going into labor? Quick, call the auto guy.

According to a report from the BBC, there’s a new childbirth device invented by an Argentinian car mechanic, and it promises to replace the forceps and suction caps of old.

It all started when an inventive workshop owner named Jorge Odon became aware of a party trick that involves using a plastic bag to extract a cork from inside a wine bottle. One night, as Odon lay tossing in bed, he realized that the same principles might work for extracting a baby during childbirth. So he went to work, tinkering with prototypes. After several years of testing (and with the support of more and more reputable authorities, including the World Health Organization), Odon finally succeeded in coming up with a device that should greatly aid doctors and mothers.

Image source: Wikimedia
Image source: Wikimedia

The Odon device is so simple that even non-doctors can use it, and experts believe it will reduce the transmission of HIV and bring down the number of Caesarean births. Dr. Mario Merialdi of WHO calls it a “potentially revolutionary development,” adding that “for many years, almost centuries, there has been no innovation in this area of work.”

We’ve observed before that Peter Drucker stressed that great inventions in one field often come from people in a different field. But there are a couple of other lessons in this story.

The first is that bolt-of-lightning-style inspiration does exist, even if it is rare. Drucker liked to stress that most innovation is systematic—the result of “work rather than genius.” Nevertheless, as he acknowledged in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, “there are innovators who are ‘kissed by the Muses,’ and whose innovations are the result of a ‘flash of genius’ rather than of hard, organized, purposeful work.”

The second is that, because lone geniuses do come along, society’s rules must be encouraging to them. As it turned out, Buenos Aires wound up being a good place for Odon to do business. Doctors were willing to entertain his ideas, and authorities were willing to grant him a patent.

In Drucker’s view, this is the best you can do to encourage the elusive and unpredictable phenomenon of out-of-the-blue innovation. “There is little society can do, perhaps, to promote such innovation,” he wrote. “One cannot promote what one does not understand. But at least society should not discourage, penalize or make difficult such innovations” by, say, raising patent fees or discouraging patents as “anticompetitive.”

What role do you think solo inventors can realistically play in the modern economy?