The YIA Innovation Forum has always been close to the Locus heart — we helped establish it alongside the Young Innovator Awards back in 2013 as a way to utilise the talent that had been gathered for judging the competition. Grabbing the opportunity for these folks to share their journeys through innovation was, in hindsight, a no-brainer. The Forum has continued each year since, and this year, for me, stood out from the others in a big way — for the first time, the majority of speakers were women.
To me, at least before I joined Locus Research, the term ‘Innovator’ would spark thoughts of engineer/inventors or images of business suits — both which tend to be dominated by men, Pantsuit Nation aside. But there’s no reason for ladies to not be part of the innovation conversation (and indeed, women’s innovator/start-up struggle is far from over). So, having two of the three speakers in the line-up being intelligent, clever women gave me a bit of pride, but also hope that this could be the best YIA Forum yet — I’ve attended all but one in the last four years and haven’t been disappointed, even though the lineup has been historically dominated by men.
My hopes were far surpassed — not only was I inspired by these women, I think they completely stole the show. Here’s the detail:
First up was Sinead O’Sullivan, aerospace engineer, Northern Ireland raised and a Space Camp kid. In fact, she was the first from Northern Ireland to attend NASA‘s space school. Even though her parents wanted her to be an accountant, she stuck to what she had a passion for — “cool space stuff”. Her golden moments include being in Mission Control during the 8-minute drop of the Mars Rover, a stint in the US Aerospace design lab doing ‘design-thinking on steroids, and working with a team on asteroid mining and diversion — talk about thinking big! Indeed her career would be the envy of many kids (and at least one 30-something graphic designer). Her advice to fellow space dreamers is to just go for it! Feed your curiosity, because when you do something you have passion for you’ll have fun every day. She had some great designer’s advice as well, highlighting the importance of empathy and doing your user research. Especially in an environment as sensitive as deep space and asteroid landings, harm to one person can blow a whole mission. Today, Sinead is CEO of her own start-up, Fusion Space Technologies, where she leads a team of engineers to integrate data from satellites and drones. By combining space technology with artificial intelligence, her company is challenging the status quo of humanitarian disaster relief.
Back on Earth, we heard from Catherine Harris, Managing Director for self-defined ‘disruption company’ TBWA\Auckland. Following her formula of creativity + hard work + fun = innovation, she shared her story developing an at-home eye test for kids in the form of a story book about pirates. The final product not only helped raise awareness and value of eye health but allowed parents to do the tests in their own home and move through the story even if a test was failed. Funnily enough, though, this wasn’t even the original brief — a refreshing anecdote after she shared the beautifully executed outcome. The idea started talking about elderly care as well as moms and kids, and the team went through a lot of stress and challenges before they got there. User research allowed the team to dig deep and uncover the real issues behind standard tests and eye health awareness, and helped them generate insights to develop a product that would engage the whole family. Her message to commit tightly (to finish the project) and lightly (to allow for failure) really hit home. Most important: never give up!
We then had a quick introduction to Swift Wrap, a prototype burn wrap dispenser created by this year’s YIA senior winner, and fellow inspiring female, Lydia Gilmour. She walked us through her development and internships that helped her with user research and product development. She got a lot out of YIA, which was great to hear, and solidified her decision to pursue engineering at university. You can tell she’s on the right path to be a great innovator.
Finally, Tauranga native turned shoe engineer Wade Flannigan took the stage. He told us a bit about his history from developing forestry machinery in NZ to an innovative flower shop he opened with his wife in Portland, OR. This start-up taught him a lot about IP and the value of testing and validating an idea, even if validation comes in the form of a copy-cat company — after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Then, while working for a railcar and barge development, he met some people from Nike in a coffee shop. They were looking for diverse thinkers and he was looking for something new, and the stars aligned. Now the engineering director for Nike, Wade shared some Nike history, development of the Air series, and some of the different tools they use to develop both shoes and clothes. With the goal of making better things for athletes, they’re even working towards equipment that can help runners achieve the elusive 2-hour marathon. One key message is that insights come unexpectedly. Through user research, they discovered that mud was a huge issue for soccer players, and that, ironically, a hydrophilic material was better at clumping and releasing mud than materials that are hydrophobic — fancy that!
Overall, the speakers drove home the importance of doing your user research, but also that if you have a passion for something or want to try something new, don’t shy away — go for it. Follow your dreams and you can achieve great things.
Thanks to Priority One for yet another stellar Young Innovator Awards and Forum and for continuing to ignite innovation through the Groundswell festival of innovation. You can read more about the other Groundswell events we attended here.