No matter how good an idea is, it’ll probably need some work before it can evolve into a helpful innovation. I’ve previously drawn attention to this aspect of the creative process in my 3M Post-it Note case study.
Another notable example of what transforms ideas into innovation is the “discovery” of penicillin and its curative effect on infectious diseases.
The Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. More specifically, Fleming found that a specific mold produced penicillin. This substance was previously known to inhibit the growth of bacteria.
In 1928, Fleming was working on cultures of Staphylococcus, a bacterium that induces blood poisoning. Upon returning from a vacation, he saw a discarded Petri dish that he had left behind without sterilizing. It had a zone around an invading fungus where his bacterium culture didn’t grow. A mold spore from another lab in Fleming’s building had unexpectedly fallen on one of his cultures. The spore had spread over the Petri dish while Fleming was away. Instead of throwing the dirty Petri dish away, he isolated the mold and identified it as Penicillium chrysogenum, which kills bacteria by inhibiting new cell walls.
Fleming suggested his discovery might be used as an antiseptic in wounds. He published an account of this work in 1929. However, he couldn’t find a way of extracting enough penicillin needed to be curative enough without it becoming ineffective.
In itself, Fleming’s discovery was thus not a substantial leap in terms of penicillin’s use as a pharmaceutical. After Fleming’s discovery, penicillin proved unstable and difficult to produce in pure form for almost a decade. It took two Oxford University scientists, Sir Howard Walter Florey and Dr. Ernst Boris Chain, to realize its full potential only in the 1940s. They showed how to prepare penicillin in usable form and demonstrated that it could be favorably applied to the treatment of disease.
From the time when its medical application was established, penicillin has saved millions of lives by stopping the growth of the bacteria responsible for poisoning the blood and causing many once-fatal diseases. Fleming, Florey, and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine to recognize their complementary achievements.
Idea for Impact: Often, there’s a divergence between an idea and its tangible application that the original creator can’t bridge by himself. The creator will have to expose the concept to others who can evaluate and trial the discovery in new contexts.
In other words, the creative process doesn’t end with an idea or a prototype. A happy accident often undergoes multiple iterations and reinterpretations that can throw light on the concept’s new applications.