Exploring for Innovation by Space, Sea, and Land

Exploring for Innovation by Space, Sea, and LandI had the privilege of being invited to be a guest today at the announcement of Shell’s sponsorship of the XPrize Foundation’s exploration prize group in New York City at the historic Explorers’ Club. Speaking of explorers, here is a simple challenge for you:

Name a famous explorer.

Now name a famous explorer that isn’t dead.

The average person’s response to this challenge might make you think that the human race is done exploring, that we’ve explored every inch of the earth, but that’s just not true, and today Shell brought together a fascinating modern day roster of explorers who are still very much alive – in part to prove that humans are still exploring and that there is still much to be explored.

The roster of explorers who shared some of their experiences today in an inspiring live streaming event, that I attended in person (along with in-person intimate round table sessions with the explorers), included:

  • Richard Garriott, Vice Chair, Space Adventures, Ltd., legendary video game developer and entrepreneur; among first private citizen astronauts to board International Space Station, America’s first second-generation astronaut; and X PRIZE Foundation trustee
  • David Gallo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, renowned undersea explorer, among first oceanographers combining manned submersibles and robots to map ocean world; co-leader of recent Titanic exploration; project leader, successful search for missing Air France Flight 447
  • Mark Synnott, global mountain climber who has climbed some of the biggest rock faces and ice walls on the planet, ventured into among the least-visited locales on earth, photographed the globe’s most spectacular sites; and is a senior contributing editor of Climbing magazine.

The partnership between the Foundation and Shell has been more than a year in the making and is part of Shell’s ongoing commitment to innovation. Shell is widely known within the innovation community for its Gamechanger internal and open innovation initiative that many other organization’s have endeavored to learn from. Now Shell has chosen to continue its innovation efforts outside its four walls by beginning an innovation journey with the X PRIZE Foundation.

The goal of X PRIZE’s exploration prize group is to inspire the exploration of space, our Earth and its oceans in ways that could lead to breakthrough innovations. It is interesting to note that this week is the seven year anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X PRIZE – an overnight success after only ten years of hard work. Here are a couple of key paragraphs from the press release:

XPrize and Shell Partnership“Shell has long been on the cutting edge of innovation, and we are proud to bring them into the X PRIZE family, supporting a prize group that advances innovation, exploration and tomorrow’s discoveries,” said Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. “We are closely aligned in our goals to motivate and inspire brilliant innovators from all disciplines to leverage their intellectual capital to explore new frontiers that could result in significant global achievements.”

“Continuous innovation and pioneering spirit is part of Shell’s DNA. As a technology leader in energy, we constantly drive new solutions responding to the global energy challenge,” said Gerald Schotman, Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President, Innovation, Research & Development, Royal Dutch Shell. “We are delighted to support the X PRIZE Foundation’s Exploration Prize Group and look forward to the exciting discoveries that come from the next generation of incentivized competitions.”

One of the questions that I posed during the day sounds simple on the surface, but I think it is a complex one for us all to think about and respond to:

In your mind, what is the relationship between exploration and innovation?

For me, in some sense they are the same thing. Companies must continuously struggle to balance exploration against exploitation, or innovation against operation. But in another sense, exploration can be pursue knowledge without having an absolute goal in mind (think basic research), where innovation tends to be pursued with an intended outcome (think applied research). Does this distinction make sense, is it splitting hairs, or is there another way we should think about distinguishing between exploration and innovation?

So if you’re Shell (or any other typical company) and most of your innovation outcomes tend to be incremental in nature, then increasing your investments in exploration (or connecting to the exploration efforts of others) can help to stretch and diversify and better balance your innovation portfolio amongst incremental and disruptive innovation projects. The key is that every organization needs to innovate not just for today via incremental innovations, but for tomorrow as well by investing in more disruptive innovation efforts that have the potential to change the paradigms of the industry or to change what’s possible.

In speaking further with Gerald Schotman during the day, it came out that one of the key aspects to the Gamechanger program at Shell is that he and the other business types have no say in the first 2-3 stages of their process – intentionally – because many submissions are a slightly different way of looking at old problems and so it is more appropriate for the science and technology folks in the organization to look at the submissions and bring in the business leaders later in the process. In addition they have a lot of handovers from one set of experts to another as the expertise needed to move each project from one stage to the next often changes as you go along.

Gerald also talked about how a lot of the idea submissions come not just from outside of the traditional technical and R&D areas, but even from outside of Shell. He also spoke of his view of his own role – and that he sees it as being the person who manages the turbulent flow of the idea pipeline and the determination of the width and the orientation of that pipeline (what they’re focused on).

So, now that the X PRIZE Foundation and Shell have formed this partnership on this $9 million sponsorship of the exploration prize group, it will be interesting to follow BOTH what new challenges come out of it to drive innovation exploration by space, sea, and land AND what the implications are for Shell’s own innovation pipeline.

What do you think?

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