Our cat Wallace has been filled with innovation lessons recently. The first came when we discovered his unusual medical condition, and he taught us how important it is to check your assumptions. After his surgery, we thought that everything was fine.
That lasted for about six days, at which point we came home one evening to discover that he had chewed off his stitches. So I took him in for a quick after-hours consultation with the vet.
She said that overall, the wound was healing well. There was a second set of internal stitches, and while the two sides of the cut had separated a bit, there was no danger of it coming apart. Given the risk of putting him under anesthetic again, we decided that it was best not to try to re-stitch him.
As I was getting ready to take Wallace back home, Elise the vet paused and said “Well, I could put some wound glue on that which would definitely hold it shut until it’s fully healed.” I thought that sounded good, so she went off to find the wound glue.
When she came back in, I was quite surprised to discover that wound glue is Super Glue!
When I brought Wallace home, Nancy was also surprised to hear that our cat had been Super Glued. I mentioned this on Facebook, and a couple of my friends said that Super Glue had been originally developed for medical use. This isn’t quite true, and the actual story is even more interesting.
How you end up with a Super Glued cat
Check out this video – it was shown when Harry Coover, the guy that discovered Super Glue, was given a National Medal for Technology and Innovation to recognise his achievement:
Coover had discovered cyanoacrylates when he was working on a government contract in World War II to develop a clear gunsight. The polymer made a great gunsight, but it was impossible to work with, because it “stuck to everything.” Consequently, Coover and Eastman Kodak shelved the project.
Around 10 years later, here’s what happened:
In the early 1950s at Eastman, Kingsport, TN, Coover was managing a group of chemists who were developing new acrylic polymers for jet aircraft canopies. He suggested trying cyanoacrylates. A young chemist tried to measure the refractive index of the monomer and stuck the prisms of the refractometer together permanently.
Coover had a sudden realization. “Serendipity had given me a second chance,” he says. “What we had was a new superglue. I went and got the material and started sticking everything in the laboratory together.”
Cyanoacrylates were the world’s first single-component, high-strength adhesives. They have developed into a multibillion-dollar global industry that encompasses numerous industrial, consumer, and medical applications.
Super Glue was released as a product a few years after that. During the Vietnam War, it was in fact used for wound repair in the battlefield.
Innovation Lessons from Super Glue
There are several innovation lessons in this story:
There’s always a gap between inventing something, and turning it into something that creates value. In this case, cyanoacrylates were discovered in 1942, and Super Glue showed up as a product sixteen years later. This gap is always there, and managing that time is a critical step in managing innovation.
We often don’t know what our ideas are good for. First, cyanoacrylates were for gunsights, then plane canopies, and only later were they for sticking stuff together. This isn’t unusual. One of the reasons we have that gap between discovery and value creation is that we have to actually figure out what value our discovery creates, and often we have to build a new business model around it as well. Both of these processes take time.
Perseverance and luck both play a role in innovation. Coover was eventually successful because he kept working – perseverance was important. But so was luck – if he hadn’t realised the importance of his colleague gluing their refractometer together, he wound’t have turned cyanoacrylates into Super Glue. Chance favours both the prepared and the connected mind.
The story of Super Glue is actually a pretty normal innovation tale. The path from the Eastman lab to Wallace’s stomach was neither straight nor predictable. It’s why you need to treat innovation as a process, with lots of ideas in the pipeline, instead of making big bets on getting everything right on the first go.
It’s fun to learn about innovation from Wallace, but I hope he can just go back to being a cat now – that would be more fun for both of us probably!
image credit: sticky glue image from bigstock
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Tim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.