Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Long Lead Time of Innovation

Bill Bixton of Business Week (himself discussing a monograph by Chris Anderson) discussed the notion that it takes a long time for an idea to catch on and be successful.

This seems to be obvious to some, but equally obvious counter examples are easy to find, like the iPhone or Tickle-Me Elmo. How about The Dark Night Batman movie? Prozec?

On the other hand, in the chemical industry it is taking longer and longer to make a break-though mass market innovation. The long induction time of Kevlar comes to mind, and it is still a specialty. It has taken over ten years for polylactic acid PLA to get to the minor share of the polyester market it has today -- is it even 1%.

In my division of BASF we joke about business forecasts with huge volume upswings, and we call them "Hockey Sticks" because of their shape. More often than not the huge growth does not materialize, and people debate on whose fault that was.

The time was when a new polymer or even a new molecule could storm the world. In Pharma I think that is still true today, but blockbuster drugs are getting rarer and rarer. Once something gets regulatory approval, we can see a fast ramp up, often even faster when the patent goes off.

In basic chemicals, the pace of innovation has slowed. I think because the state of knowledge has advanced over the last century, and the basic, generic product is less inferior to the new version. I understand that a new top 50 chemical has not been introduced since the sixties.

On the other hand, there could be new chemicals ripe for commercialization if we had the creativity to realize it. There could be a whopper, but we just don't know. Another Post-it or Velcro.

This reminds me of Clayton Christianson's Disruptive Technology, which might be the subject of another post. He claims that incremental innovation can never give "hockey stick" growth, only new, generally low cost innovations.

Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer can strike with deadly force, and when it strikes it kills over 60% of the time. It has the potential to take one from happy and oblivious to near death fast. Lung cancer kills 31% of all those who die of cancer. The chance of an American getting lung/bronchus cancer before the age of 60 is 1:92 -- surprisingly high. The chance between birth and death is a whooping 1:12. Link

The chance of getting all forms of cancer between birth and death is 50:50.

There were 160,000 deaths due to lung cancer in 2007, and about 2000 in Michigan. The greatest incidence of lung cancer is in Arkansas, and the lowest in Utah. Of course, smoking is the biggest factor in cancer incidence. Lung cancer is most common in African American men; least common in Asian & Hispanic women.

Lung cancer like fatal car accidents and other serious illnesses underscores the fragility of life -- something we all know, but don't think about.

Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness discusses his version of the alternate world hypothesis where chance events take place differently. He says the value of a life is the average of all the possible worlds. Taleb is primarily talking about high finance, but I think the notion applies to disease survivors and victims as well.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Christmas Tree

Every year I put up a Christmas Tree, for whatever reason, I always do this instead of my wife. After twenty years of discussion with her, I bought an artificial tree. She always complained about the needles in the living room, and thought that it was environmentally bad to get a natural tree. I never believed that natural trees were harmful, since they are a renewable resource, but I got worn down. I also hated driving the old tree to the dump.

The tree that I bought was a "9' GE Just Cut Aspin Tree," which appears to be made by GE, but is actually sold by a company called Santa's Best Craft in Wisconsin. I suspect the tree was made in China, but it did not say so in the packaging. "Santa's Best" is an actual brick and mortar company in Manitowoc (Wisconsin). The tree is made of PVC, and seems to be dioctyl phthalate-free. It has flexible molded PVC tips and less expensive PVC roll-stock garland branches inside. The PVC is not flammable, so it is safer than a natural tree. Since I used to work in phthalate-free plasticizers, I am interested in what plasticizer they are using, probably something like trioctyl trimellitate, but I'm guessing.

I bought the tree at Lowes, and it was on sale Thanksgiving weekend. The following weekend, Lowes had their whole Christmas stock on half-off -- a new example of rushing the season. I got it on sale. I was thinking about deflation while I was buying it -- if I would have waited another weekend I would have saved more.

After I put the tree up, I did not like it. The tree seemed too even and perfect. When I am right up next to it, it looks artificial. The new tree looks better from across the room than close up.