I came across a very interesting story last week. If you ever wanted an explanation on how serendipity works, the article by Paul Sloane of Destination Innovation does it for me. It’s also a good example that crazy ideas are often the best but it takes some time to convince other people.

Paul is a regular contributor to Better Business Focus, my monthly business magazine for business owners and managers.

Paul wrote about Jorge Odon, an Argentinian car mechanic who has invented a simple device which could save millions of lives of mothers and babies. The story of his invention is remarkable and instructive.

The story starts when Jorge was shown a YouTube video of a trick to remove a cork from inside a bottle (below).

Jorge won a bet by demonstrating the trick to a friend.  The secret is to insert a plastic bag into the bottle, inflate the bag around the cork and then pull it out.  Later that night Jorge had a brainwave – what if he could use the same principle that extracted the cork from the bottle to extract a baby during a difficult childbirth?

Jordge OdenHe developed the idea and discussed it with people – most of whom thought he was crazy.  But he persisted.  He patented the concept and gained the support of a leading obstetrician in Buenos Aires, Dr Javier Schvartzman who helped him develop and improve a prototype device.   This gained the attention of the World Health Organisation whose chief co-ordinator for maternal health, Dr Mario Merialdi, was intrigued by the idea.

Over 5 million babies and over a quarter of a million mothers die in childbirth every year – mainly in the developing world.  Odon’s invention could save many of these lives because it is inexpensive and relatively easy to use.

The product is to be manufactured by Becton Dickinson and Company who say it will be sold cheaply to developing countries. This is very important to Odon.

There are some helpful lessons for innovators in this story:

  • Take a different view.  We tend to think of childbirth as something biological or medical. But if we view it as a mechanical process then it is natural that a mechanical device can be used for improvement.
  • Spot a weird connection.  Odon watched a video of a cork in a bottle and saw an analogy with a baby in the birth canal.  A solution in one field can be applied in another if the connection can be found.
  • Outsiders can find radical solutions.  Odon knew nothing about obstetrics but this turned out to be an advantage.  He thought like a mechanical engineer not a doctor.
  • A radical idea initially looks absurd and needs support.  Putting a plastic bag around a baby in the birth canal sounded ridiculous at first so the open-minded support of Shvatzmann and Merialdi was crucial to the survival and development of the idea.

Jorge Odon is now celebrated for his invention.  He said “I woke up one night with this idea, it almost felt magical. What I cannot understand is how I came up with a solution to help babies be born. I’m moved by the potential of this invention and I’m especially grateful to the doctors who first believed in me.”

More details are given in this a BBC report, here and on the Odon Device website here.

The Odon Device won a World Health Organisation “Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development” award for its potential to save the lives of mothers and new-born babies.

We can all learn something from the way Jorge’s thinking worked. He may have come up with a crazy idea but Jorge wasn’t crazy. It reminds me of the Apple Think Different commercial which said… “… the people who are crazy enough to change the world, are the people that do.” View it here.

Martin Pollins
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