Technological breakthroughs aren’t always intentional, as Alexander Fleming found out. He famously discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin by accident after leaving a petri dish of staphylococcus by an open window in his lab at St Mary’s Hospital.
The Real Innovation Awards, by MT and London Business School, wants to honour such accidental innovators. The Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award will go to a person or organisation that built a thriving business on an idea that originated in the most unexpected or surprising way.
Here’s the shortlist – vote for your favourite now.
The breakthrough ‘lightbulb moment’ for Cumbrian engineering boutique, Barrnon, was owner Andy Barr’s realisation that their high-end scallop trawling gear could be repurposed to recover stratified waste from radioactive sludge ponds.
Barrnon quickly prototyped a purpose-built system and demonstrated it to the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, winning a contract to continue development. The company has subsequently developed a suite of tools designed to meet the exacting standards of the nuclear clean up industry and has won contracts in the USA and Japan as well as the UK.
In 2007, MIT Professor Rosalind Picard and her team developed iCalm, wearables designed to detect the first signs of stress in autistic people by measuring their electrodermal activity. One day a student borrowed a pair of wristbands to monitor his autistic brother’s stress level, and Picard later chanced upon a huge peak in the data that turned out to have been a seizure. Picard had indirectly invented a device that could save lives by monitoring epilepsy.
Empatica was started in 2011 to bring advanced data analytics on the human body to researchers and patients. Its latest product, Embrace, is a revolutionary wearable that can provide alerts for seizures and increasing stress levels.
Innis & Gunn
The existence of Innis & Gunn owes a debt to good fortune. In 2002, a whisky distiller approached master brewer Dougal Gunn Sharp to season their oak casks with the character of a full-flavoured beer, resulting in a greatly admired dram. Unexpectedly Dougal then received an exciting call – this time it wasn’t the whisky getting rave reviews. Some inquisitive workers at the distillery had sampled his beer instead of pouring it away after its time in casks, and the taste was remarkable. It had been transformed by the oak into an unusually refined brew.
Inspired on that heady day thirteen years ago Dougal launched his new Original oak-aged beer, and ever since Innis & Gunn has been dedicated to sharing the unique flavours of its oak aged brews with the world, becoming one of the UK’s most successful international craft beer businesses selling over 23 million bottles of beer globally.
The Morphsuit was stumbled upon by accident and has grown into a global phenomenon. It began at a stag party, where guests were asked to dress in a single colour. Brothers Fraser and Ali Smeaton and their friend Greg Lawson noticed one man getting huge amounts of attention for his bright blue ‘zentai’, a head-to-toe skintight spandex bodysuit. Inspired, the founders wore similar costumes on a ski trip to Canada, where they attracted similar levels of attention.
They refined the design, spent £700 on a website and launched Morphsuits, so-called because the costume "made people morph into a more fun version of themselves." The original business case was to sell 20,000. To date, over 2.5 million have been sold.
Lebanese entrepreneur Habib Haddad co-founded Yamli with Imad Jureidini in 2007. The company’s products are aimed at people with no access to an Arabic keyboard who want to send or receive information in Arabic. The Yamli smart keyboard allows users to type in Arabic using a standard Qwerty keyboard, by spelling their words phonetically. Yamli Arabic Search is a search engine enabling people to quickly find Arabic-language content.
Haddad created Yamli during the 2006 Lebanon war. Living in the US, he struggled to find news about the situation in Lebanon. The idea for Yamli came from Arabizi, the Arabic "chat alphabet", that’s used by Lebanese youth on social media and for informal emails between colleagues.