Who discovered penicillin?
Most people know the story of Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery in his lab. But here’s the tougher question: who turned penicillin into a life-saving antibiotic?
The answer to that is: a team led by Howard Florey.
The fact that many more people know about Fleming than Florey is a big problem.
Fleming’s feat took knowledge, skill, and preparedness. But Florey’s took all of that, a big team, plus five years of incredibly focused hard work. The biochemist Ernst Chain was a key team member (and shared the Nobel Prize with Florey and Fleming), and many others. As with most innovation, it was a collective effort. The team had to figure out how penicillin worked, then if it still worked in people, then how to manufacture it, then how to do so at scale. Every single one of those hurdles was challenging.
This is a common innovation mistake: we glorify ideas, while dismissing all the other work as “just execution.”
To innovate, we need three things: a great new idea, that we’ve made real, which creates value for people.
Fleming had the idea, Florey’s team made it real and created value for people.
Making ideas real is unglamourous, as the case of penicillin shows. But even after doing all that work, we’re in trouble if it doesn’t create value for people.
There’s no one more frustrated than someone that has a great idea, and has made it real, but can’t get anyone interested in it. That’s why it’s so important to create value. It’s value creation that leads to impact, and impact is what we really want. Lean startup is the best tool I’ve found to figure out how to best achieve impact.
Ideas are important. But if we want to create change, we don’t just need an ideas boom – we need an impact boom.
Note 1: Here’s a draft paper with my colleague Robert Faff that discusses a tool we’ve made to help academic researchers focus on impace.
Note 2: if you’re a researcher at an Australian University, CSIRO is running a program designed to help with this. I’m facilitating the Brisbane stream.
Note 3: here’s my TEDxUQ talk on this: