Accelerate - June 2013

Coffee with Tim Prestero

International design guru and award-winning innovator Tim Prestero says design should make a difference to the world.

He’d be the first to admit that some of his ideas have failed commercially, but he understands the distinction between a fiasco and a “successful failure”.

Callaghan Innovation invited Tim Prestero as one of our headline speakers at the New Zealand Tech Innovation Week that took place on 14–17 May 2013. Tim is a multi-award-winning inventor, a highly rated TED speaker and the founder and CEO of Design that Matters, a non-profit company that designs products for the poor in developing countries.

Design that Matters jumped to the spotlight when they created the NeoNurture Infant Incubator. Time magazine named it one of its 50 Best Inventions of 2010. But the product didn’t find manufacturers or buyers and remains in prototype to this day.

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What was the genesis of the NeoNurture Infant Incubator?

“It started with the problem of newborn mortality: every year four million kids die before their first birthday, and many before their first month. Of those deaths, 95% or more happen in the developing world. Thermoregulation is managing the temperature around the baby. In a newborn that isn’t effective yet, and they’re very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature. Of those four million kids, call it 3.8 million in the developing world, about half would make it if you could keep them warm for maybe the first week. Some of our initial research was in collaboration with Sir Ray Avery’s organisation and Medicine Mondiale in Nepal.”

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Why hasn’t it made it beyond the prototype?

“If you think about a big business, the engineers will say, ‘Once you’ve solved engineering, marketing is a piece of a cake’. Whereas if you talk to the marketers, they’ll say, ‘Once you have the marketing strategy done, that’s the hard work, and engineering is trivial’.
“One of the things we discovered to our astonishment and dismay is that compared with manufacturing, financing and product distribution, design is the least-hard part of the problem. It’s not easy but financing, manufacturing and distribution are incredibly difficult. We didn’t establish those partnerships from the beginning with the incubator. We haven’t found anyone who wanted to use our product.”

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So the incubator was a step in the evolutionary process?

“In innovation we have to have an appetite for failure, an ability to have a successful failure – one that you can build on. We learned a lot of incredibly valuable lessons that we can apply to all of our work in the future. It is so important that designers keep in mind who buys products and who uses them, as well as how they may be used incorrectly. In a way, it is important to build successful failures, in that each failure will map out some important insight. It’s like learning to sail: if you don’t get wet you’re probably always going to be a lousy sailor.”

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In your TED talk you say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb user; there are only dumb products”. What other factors stop inventions becoming commercial successes?

“The biggest difference between design and invention as a problem-solving process is that invention starts with the answer and then looks for people who are asking the question. Whereas design starts with people who have a problem, then moves to trying to understand the problem and then coming up with a specific solution.”

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What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Creativity requires constraints. There’s an upside-down bell curve of how constraints drive creativity and a sweet spot where just the right amount of constraints really helps creativity.”

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Do you believe in the positive effects of social media in growing a business?

“The biggest opportunity that social media offer is that a lot of start-up companies go out there with their hands out, asking for everybody to help them, and that gets really tedious. What social media and marketing in general allow you to do is make the case for how you exist to help other people achieve their dreams.”

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How do you find collaborators and investors?

“There are a number of international awards programmes – for example, there’s a programme called Ashoka with 1,700 Ashoka fellows around the world who are considered pioneers in their given sectors. We look for evidence of an organisation with leadership and a pre-existing commitment to innovation. You don’t want to be selling innovation to somebody who’s not buying it. And there’s a particular commitment to serving the poor in developing countries.”

Updated: 4 September 2015