Creative Generalist Q&A: Adrian Chernoff
Adrian Chernoff is the Chief Creative Officer of Ideation Genesis, an innovation company based in Boulder, Colorado. He creates and develops a wide array of novel consumer goods – everything from story-telling products to technology products.
Chernoff has been inventing things since the age of six. Even at that tender age, he would carry a pad and pencil to jot down his thoughts and sketch them out. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, by his thirty-fifth birthday he received his 50th U.S. patent on top of 12 international ones. His innovations run the gamut from highly technical to deceptively simple. At General Motors he was awarded the title of Master Inventor and the Chairman’s Honor Award for leading GM’s pioneering efforts in developing the AUTOnomy, Hy-Wire, CARousel, and Sequel technology vehicles. Many speculate that these environmentally-friendly technologies will eventually replace today’s combustion engines. Adrian also transformed rubber bands into labeling bands called “Rubber Bandits,” which are sold at Staples. At Walt Disney Imagineering he worked on creating theme park rides, and at NASA, he developed new concepts and hardware for their space programs.
Um, so what exactly do you do, Adrian?
I think, I create, I design, and I nurture ideas to life. I am part visionary and part idea czar. I work on a multitude of wide ranging and diverse projects where I have little or no knowledge or prior experience. I thrive on the blank slate and the open-ended question. Through my company Ideation Genesis I innovate on both homegrown projects as well as assisting corporations, organizations and entrepreneurs in products and services.
For example, right now I am working on a new drink product. There isn’t exactly a how-to guide on creating a drink. So, the learning dialogue in creating a drink is very interesting and one has to explore and discover many things at the same time. Some questions I am exploring right now include types of ingredients, types of processes, nutritional ingredients, and chemical changes through temperature. I may have blended a few breakfast drinks here and there, but I am no expert. And yet diving into the unknown drives me. Each piece is explored and is integrated into a larger piece of an ever-evolving puzzle. And the end result must be simple and clear even if all the stages are complex on their very own.
What sort of approach do you take with inventing?
There are two processes. First when I have an idea I always write it down. In this instance I will have an epiphany, an aha of a new idea, and then I must write it down with enough detail to recall it later. It must be legible, or else, what’s the use, I won’t know what it says and the idea has come and gone. Then I document the idea through journaling capturing the essence of the idea, do some sketches, and then let it incubate.
The second process is nurturing an idea to life. This process is longer, and can take months or years to complete. It is an evolutionary process and always begins with learning, exploring, and digesting new knowledge. This phase includes research, incubation, quick prototyping, mapping, and analysis. Then once the new idea is framed with enough knowledge it is time for development, which includes breaking it down into a feasible service or product through charts, diagrams, models, and prototypes in addition to market awareness, sales channels, and communicating the product. The development process is an integrated approach of product design, engineering, marketing, cost analysis, intellectual property protection, manufacturing analysis, etc and as these disciplines converge on the goal at hand the end product or service is refined as the invention is readied for the world.
What is your educational background? And how did you come to be doing what you do now?
I have always been driven by creativity, but I took a more technical route. At college I studied Mechanical Engineering, but took drawing classes from the art department and architecture classes from the school of architecture. I really enjoyed the non-traditional thought processes and the school of architecture was jazzed by my projects and work. They supported my ideas, concepts and projects and wanted me to transfer to their school, but I stayed the course with engineering. My passion is in creativity and even though it is a foreign concept in engineering school I realized engineering processes are valuable and furthermore unique when combined with design and business skill sets. I can’t say it wasn’t easy, but it was about personal perseverance as I earned an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, and as I became the first graduate at the University of New Mexico to receive dual masters degree with a Masters in Business Administration and a Masters in Manufacturing Engineering.
The answer to the second part of the question of how I ended up doing what I do now is not a simple answer. To begin with I spent my free time during my college years and any of my free time creating ideas and concepts, I traveled and observed different cultures around the world, and I applied to jobs where I could nurture my creativity and knowledge base. I always sought growth opportunities where I could learn and experience new things and in jobs where my combined business, engineering, and design skill set would be of value and where I could learn and grow.
I might add that if you’re like me it’s not easy finding opportunities that fit, and it’s not always clear to someone in HR what you do, but it is always clear to the visionaries and shakers in the world what you have to bring. Patience is key in addition to keeping active and keeping the faith things will work out. The world of invention is lined with trees of rejection, but trees do survive and succeed in making their way in the world.
You were the Chief Architect and principal inventor behind General Motors’ “Reinvention of the Automobile”. Please summarize what that entailed. Can the automobile truly be reinvented?
For many years General Motors and many OEM’s have thought there could be something new in transportation, but what? No one in the last fifty years had broken through. At the request of the CEO of General Motors, I was challenged to reinvent the automobile. With that call I was hired into General Motors with very little automotive experience to fulfill the request. The task was clear, reinvent the automobile. There were no constraints and it was on open-ended question of what-if?
Let us start this discussion with a little vehicle primer. The vehicle’s basic design architecture has been stagnant from it early designs of a three box configuration having a low box in front, a high box in the middle and a low box in back. It contains a seat or seats and has an engine propulsion system either packaged up front or in the rear. Many innovations have been added to this basic mode of transportation, but it is evolutionary as everything has been added in a step-by-step configuration for the last 100 years.
Now, consider throwing everything away but keeping four wheels and a place to sit. What could one do? What would one create? Could one change the utilitarian nature of the vehicle in many aspects from the ground up and from inside out? Could it impact the design, mobility, economics, ergonomics, access, control, manufacturing, and day-to-day use of the vehicle?
The answer is yes. It consists of a life size skateboard with everything packaged in the skateboard. The skateboard, which is predominantly flat, has a self-contained propulsion system, electric motors in each wheel for propelling the vehicle forward or backward, and an electronic controlled network for braking, accelerating, and steering the vehicle. Everything about the vehicle being a mechanical system with linkages and cables became reinvented into a system of electronic signals with moving liquids and gases. The vehicle become something different, the user could create anything on top of a skateboard. Design was liberated from the three-box structure, and so is everything that has evolved in the modern day vehicle. The vehicle of the future is the AUTOnomy.
Once the idea was conceived it had to be championed and supported. The VP of General Motors R&D became the vehicle champion and through the support of the CEO and the VP of Design, we began the journey of turning the idea into a reality by collaborating and integrating technology and design. Technology would be packaged smartly and seamlessly and the design would enrich the presentation and acceptance of the reinvention.
Over the course of eighteen months it became a reality. In nine months, the AUTOnomy showcased the future benefits and design enabling freedom, and just nine months later the Hy-Wire became the first fully functioning and running prototype utilizing by-wire technology, fuel cells, and a skateboard.
There is a fundamental need in many organizations for innovation. The need can be heard in many of their conference rooms, but the issue is leveraging it. Yes, organizations must first have the desire, ability and need to create ideas of value, but the translation, implementation, and execution dies long before it can be leveraged. I have observed the limitations, which come from having too many gatekeepers, decision heads, and levels and not enough champions and risk takers to sustain the wild ride. It can be done, but it takes perseverance, risk, and belief. The faith and the success in leverage innovation for the most part resides in the hands of the Champion who encounters obstacles and must consistently overcome them along the entire process.
Your site www.adrianchernoff.com proudly touts that you have 60 patents (from 112 applications). What is your view of the patent process and the changing nature of intellectual property?
The patent process is relatively new the United States, but it is accelerating. In 1836 the first patent was issued and it took 75 years until the first millionth patent was issued in 1911. The seventh millionth patent took 10% of the time than the first million at 74 months. I have done some basic calculations and I estimate the eight millionth patent will be issued on April 20, 2010, just 49 months later. It is evident that more and more patents are being issued every day even thought the backlog is increasing with an average award time of 2.5 to 4 years.
The patent process is starting to yield patents that are both more valuable and quantifiable. Patents are fueling new business start-ups with equity financing and are becoming viable means for proving the inventor(s) on record. In today’s age more and more lawsuits are being awarded for patent infringement and that’s a good sign. It means that patents are becoming a commodity. As patents become more important so does the role of the inventor and the need for inventors. The patent process is expensive and is time consuming, but it can be rewarding. This is the only process that can give an organization or an individual a legal monopoly for a short period of time. And because of this monopoly there are organizations that have cropped up that are patenting things to own them like real estate holdings. These organizations have no intent on turning the patents into products and services, but rather to cash in them at a later date. This new business model may cause more conflict than growth in the future.
You wear many job titles and your inventions range from automotive parts to rubber bands. Is the variety and apparent lack of focus intentional? Why or why not?
It is not necessarily intentional, but it stems from having diverse interests and knowledge base. I really enjoy learning new things and that is why I can easily play in many fields. Some may see it as a long term lack of focus, but in reality it is intense focus in a specific area for a short period of time. I become an expert in a niche area for a while as I create results, and then as things proceed and make their way I transition into new opportunities and areas as they arise.
I easily transition from one world to another. It stems from being mentally agile and adaptable. And this can be seen in my work history from working on inventing robotics for space applications at NASA to designing theme park rides at Walt Disney to working on futuristic and revolutionary vehicles at General Motors.
What role does analogy play in the invention and innovation process?
Analogy can be a useful tool in identifying the value in what is being created and at the same time it can be the focal point that keeps the clarity around the product as it flows through the development process. Analogy provides a clear focus and filtering process. At each junction of the process an expert can suggest valuable changes and if the innovation is not clear and specific then it may evolve or become something different than what was intended. However, changes can add value and drifting may yield some breakthroughs, but it can also complicate and create chaos shifting a product from a market success to a market failure.
It is important to remember Analogy can help guide, align, and keep focus of the process and the product. Without a defined focus the process or the product can become more complicated and drift occurs. Drift can be very damaging in both complicating the product, imbedding unnecessary functions, adding costs, and losing the desired end-deliverable. There are many experts that get involved along the way in bringing a process or product to market and each can add their value. As new values are added and removed, the drift effect can result in something entirely different than what was initially conceived and agreed upon.
What are some of the traits that many of the individuals that you feature at muzz.com share?
Oh yes, MUZZ, a site I created to showcase the success of individuals who make a profound difference in the world. Each individual profiled on MUZZ has made either a singular, dynamic, or ever-compound contribution that has changed the world. Each succeeded in maintaining their course in the face of adversity. Each made their mark while not compromising their vision. Each in his or her own right is a role model for the future. Each has succeeded in action and fuels faith to others that it is possible to succeed by yourself, in your own way, and with your own vision in the complex and diverse world that we live in and within.
Those who have and who are persevering are added to the site. They join Leonardo da Vinci who created the robot in the late 1400’s, Marcel Marceau who introduced a new silent world of mime, Jim Henson who created education puppets and the Muppets, George Washington Carver who created 300 uses of peanuts, Nikola Tesla who created AC power, Albert Einstein who created and identified the theory of relativity, Frank Lloyd Wright who indoctrinated a new architecture and built 500 buildings, Katharine Hepburn who created iconic and strong female characters in movies, and Walt Disney who created of Mickey Mouse, animated movies, and themed amusement parks.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations, people, books or websites that you find especially inspiring?
I look for inspiration in others, in ideas, in innovations, in theater, in music, in movies, and products. I don’t really have a consistent well that I go back to, but I do read a lot of magazines including Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Business Week, Wired, Fast Company and Business 2.0. I also go through intense reading cycles and perhaps that was from my grandfather, Milton Appelbaum, who owned the Arcadia Bookshop, an antiquarian bookstore in New York’s infamous book row. I also watch a lot of movies, go to trade shows, and travel.
I never know what inspires me to create, but by being in action in the world I am able to see new connections, with those visionary connections I am enabled to create, and by being creative I am inspired.
Very inspiring. Thanks Adrian!