Open Innovation: What if Work Were Everyone’s Business

Isinnova Charlotte valve

How much value do you put in one breath? Consider that we can go three days without water, and up to twenty days without food. For breath, we're talking minutes. The greatest freediver can teach you techniques to breathe better.

Relaxing helps: “Calmness. Stillness. Barely-there-ness. There are dreamlike contours to the plunge.” The limit of breath holding is dictated by your metabolic rate. It regulates how little oxygen and how much carbon dioxide you can tolerate in your body. 

Similarly, the limit of creating a safe space for holding innovation depends on the company where you're operating. Your culture regulates how little ingenuity and how much ego you can tolerate in your company.

This is a story of open innovation with a business lesson in it:

the future will be forged on several potential fronts.


Mind over matter

But first things first: When there's a will, there's a way. 

“The key for Alexey is to train his brain to almost physically overcome his thoughts and hold his mind in a state of nothingness and nowness.” Molchanov: “Instead of focusing on the importance of an event, I switch to focusing on how much I enjoy deep diving, and how much I enjoy the process. I'm doing this because I like it.”

It's March 2020. Chiari Hospital near Brescia needs Venturi valves to connect respiratory masks with respirators: 122 Covid-19 patients, equipment only for 20. Italian journalist Nunzia Vallini put the hospital in touch with Isinnova chief executive Cristian Fracassi after discovering the original supplier was unable to supply new valves quickly.

Fracassi and mechanical engineer Alessandro Romaioli raced to the hospital to inspect the valve. They returned with a working prototype. The pair joined forces with another local 3-D-printer company, Lonati, to meet the demand. Isinnova has six printers and the devices take about an hour each to print.

Ironically, while Fracassi* worried only about replicating the part to save lives at a cost of $1 each, manufacturers of the valves who had refused to share their blueprints for production could sue for copyright breaches.

But the situation called for action,

not bureaucracy.

Being curious by nature and extremely persevering, Fracassi took action. After a test of the valve printed at ISINNOVA, the doctor asks for 100 valves to save his patients. Having worked over the weekend to complete the order, the team plans to reconvene midweek.


Collaboration critical to innovation

The start-up patented the new valve link component. And released its designs so experts could replicate the work for free. Many did. But that wasn't the end of it. In March 2020, Italian hospitals were quickly becoming overwhelmed with patients.

Dr. Renato Favero, retired head physician of the Gardone Val Trompia hospital in Brescia, contacted Fracassi after reading about the Isinnova's valve. Favero foresaw a need for respirators, and not just in Brescia.

After a brief and intense lesson in anatomy, Favero talked about an idea he had: make emergency respirators using 3D-printed components by modifying a device already in market. The Easybreath snorkeling mask. Favero drops it on the table, then wishes the team good luck.

Decathlon, the company that produced the mask, was willing to cooperate, providing the drawing of the mask. 100,000 masks were in stock. That took away the uncertainty of working on a product that could potentially get out of stock quickly.

Isinnova dismantled and studied the product to evaluate the changes necessary. Decathlon sent 15 for their use in prototyping the connection. The team designed a new component to the ventilator. They called the link Charlotte valve, and printed it using 3D printing.

Here Fracassi (6:04) demonstrates the valve with connection and filter. The test of a fully-working prototype in the Chiari Hospital proved to be effective. In the meantime, from four hospitals in need, 2 in Brescia, 2 in Bergamo, or 80 pieces total, the need shot to 100 in Chiari alone.

Meanwhile, Brescia's civil protection called. After reading the news about Isinnova's work, they purchased 500 Decathlon masks and needed 500 valves.


True collaboration is open

You can accelerate the process of collaboration by teaching the underlying skills. Faced with the constraints of 3D printers and time, while requests for valves poured in, Fracassa posted the designs.

He than asked journalists to print an appeal to all owners of 3D printers to print valves and donate them to the closest hospitals. In 24 hours, the site's traffic shot to 2-million and barely held up. More than 50 Italian hospitals got help. But also Brazil, India, U.S.

The files were downloaded in 60-70 regions of the world. Isinnova talked to ministers and presidents. The specs were translated in several languages. About 20-22 different versions of the valve emerged. Some companies did an amazing job of modifying the valve.

Charlotte Valve modified by Ferrari

[Ferrari's version of the valve]

Thanks to this global outpouring of support, the Charlotte valve reached many parts of the world. Though the design remains an “uncertified biomedical device,” at the height of the pandemic, Italy used 15,000 valves. Saving lives.

Brazil used 35,000, France 30,000. From Uzbekistan to Germany, the Philippines and Burundi, Madagascar, Canada, and many more. A third project involved sending 3d printers to Africa. Tourists left the masks, so they had those, but they didn't have the printers.

Isinnova also provided mini courses to learn how to use the printers. Fracassi doesn't know for certain how many people utilized the Charlotte valve's specs. But they estimate at least 186,000. Isinnova printed probably 300-400 valves in all. More than 26,000 companies and people around the world, many of whom Fracassi doesn't know, realized 99 percent of the project.

The company's prizes included: Premio Anima 2020 for social responsibility, Grifone d'Acciaio, Cavaliere della Repubblica (from President Mattarella), and the Mother Theresa Memorial Award.


If work were everyone's business

No consultant would have suggested to just start. There was no money in doing the work. While the risks were very high: a Venturi valve in 3D for hospitals to use in critical conditions. Acting allowed Isinnova to get into the arena and empower the rest of the world.

Some even called Fracassi the Italian Elon Musk. But if you hear him talk, you'd walk away with renewed confidence. He's not just the greatest champion for open innovation, he's also its most important evangelist.

Despite becoming known all over the world for the Charlotte valve, Christian makes his money through his work at Isinnova. This was a niche project for a specific application. But imagine if it was possible to tap into the experience and skills of engineers and scientists for important projects.

And to empower more people to collaborate. Capital models and business models would need to evolve to make this feasible long term. More importantly, what we value and how we value it. It's worth remembering Hegel's observation that “When a phenomenon increases quantitatively, we have a radical qualitative change in the landscape.”

Rather than a company selecting one candidate among hundreds using obscure methods, we could have hundreds of skilled people working on projects that matter. Would you not breathe more easily, then?


[Image: Ventilators made from a snorkeling mask sold by French retailer Decathlon. Isinnova]

*A construction engineer-architect born in Brescia, Fracassi earned a doctorate in Materials Engineering and holds a Master's in Economics and Business Idea Development. In 2014 he co-founded ISINNOVA, a research center and incubator of ideas with the aim of helping individuals and companies to create new innovative products. He is also president of Pharmadome and Camelot companies.

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