Invention Machine and the Case of the Boxed-Up Box Spring
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build a semantic search engine that sifted and indexed the engineering literature with such key subject-verb-object relationships in mind.
“We do deep semantic analysis, looking at the structure of these documents and indexing them according to functional relationships,” explains James Todhunter, Invention Machine’s chief technology officer. “Everyone has a different view on how information should be stored and accessed, but through semantic search we can relieve the burden on the organization to structure information so that people can find it. The information becomes self-organized based on questions of design intent.”
The whole point of Goldfire’s semantic search tools is to supplement existing engineering brainstorming processes—including TRIZ, root cause analysis, and failure mode and effects analysis—that are “traditionally very hit and miss,” in Todhunter’s words. “If there’s a document [pertaining to a specific problem] but you don’t know how to get to it, it might as well not exist. Our software plays the role of virtual subject-matter expert. A design engineer could ask a question like ‘What could make this O-ring fail?’ and the software can not only sift through vast quantities of both internal data and information from outside the company, but can lead them through a method of thinking about the problem.”
But while even the earliest releases of Goldfire offered unique capabilities, Invention Machine had trouble explaining and selling the product to other companies—and, by 2002, found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. That was when Stamford, CT-based venture firm Trident Capital put $12.5 million into the company. Atkins was just coming off the $100 million sale of his last company, Vality Technology, to Ascential Software—and Trident brought him in as Invention Machine’s turnaround CEO.
In 2005, under Atkins’ direction, the company brought out Goldfire Innovator—a totally revamped, easier-to-use, Windows-based version of the software—and has been profitable ever since, with revenues growing at 50 percent year-over-year. The 200-employee company is headquartered in Boston and has international sales offices in Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Tokyo, but most of the company’s programmers are still based in Minsk, Belarus.
“It’s a big myth that innovating is about great ideas,” says Todhunter, who publishes a blog called Innovating to Win. “The reality is that it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not just having a brilliant idea—it happens because someone sees a lot of pieces of data and is able to synthesize something new. What we do is help people see the convergence of that data.”
Yet from time to time, says Atkins, Invention Machine still has trouble getting customers to believe its sales pitch. “Even when we show them the software, they say it’s too good to be true,” he says. But the company has one big factor going for it: the reality that companies must innovate faster than ever to stay competitive in a global marketplace. “Companies have this huge problem being able to execute ideas and turn them into products,” Atkins says. “More than 70 percent of revenue-generating products will sunset in the next five years. Also, there is a baby-boomer exodus coming, and the next generation of engineers will be much more digitally oriented. So even the skeptical customers are saying, ‘We’ll go ahead and make the leap.’”