By Chris Cannon

Innovation is the heartbeat of progress. It transcends the boundaries that divide industries and sectors, reinventing the way organizations operate, compete, and grow.

Borrowing innovation ideas from competitors is the status quo in any industry. But there is also much to be learned from studying and experimenting with concepts and business models from completely unrelated silos – not just thinking outside the box, but thinking outside the box factory, and perhaps the entire box-making industry.

Even with radically different goals and processes across sectors – business, academia, government, etc. – good innovation ideas retain the core concepts of adaptability, risk-taking, pivoting, testing, scaling, continuous improvement, and above all, creating value.

Here are just a few ways innovative ideas developed for one industry can be repurposed to advance another:

Innovative ideas developed for one industry can be repurposed to advance another.

From space to sports

Materials developed for space exploration have to withstand the extreme conditions of space, including intense radiation, vacuum pressures, and the rigors of rocket launches. One such material is aerogel, often referred to as “frozen smoke,” known for its incredible lightness and insulation properties. This material is now used in modern sports gear, from lining in ski jackets to the soles of performance footwear, providing athletes with apparel that is not only lightweight and comfortable but also highly insulative against weather.

Another notable example is the use of carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRP). Initially developed for aerospace due to its high strength-to-weight ratio and rigidity, CFRP is now widely used in high-end sporting equipment such as golf clubs, bicycles, and tennis rackets, allowing for enhanced performance and durability.

From mechanics to medicine

Formula 1 racing is a sport where fractions of a second can be the difference between victory and defeat, necessitating a level of precision engineering and data analysis that is second to none. The advanced telemetry systems used in F1 cars collect and transmit data in real-time, tracking everything from engine performance to tire pressure. This technology has been adapted for use in the healthcare sector, particularly in the development of respiratory devices.

The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team collaborated with engineers from University College London to adapt their F1 technology for a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device, which has been used to provide oxygen to COVID-19 patients, enhancing their breathing without the need for invasive mechanical ventilation. This innovation idea was notable for its rapid development and deployment, showcasing the potential for cross-industry collaboration in times of crisis.

From consumer electronics to precision agriculture

Drones, once primarily designed for military applications and consumer electronics, have literally taken agriculture to new heights. The use of drone technology in agriculture allows for detailed aerial views of farmland, providing farmers with rich, actionable data. These drones can be equipped with various sensors (such as multispectral cameras) to assess plant health, moisture levels, and even soil composition.

DJI’s Agras drones, for example, are designed for crop spraying but can also help farmers monitor plant health, track growth, and make informed decisions about crop management. By analyzing the data collected by drones, farmers can identify which areas of their fields require attention, optimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and ultimately improve crop yields while reducing waste and environmental impact.

Mechanisms and Strategies

Cross-industry innovation thrives on the transfer (and transformation) of innovation ideas across different sectors. Technology incubators and accelerators have become the de facto innovation laboratories, but with these practices, anyone can expand their exposure to innovative ideas.

Foster a culture of learning

  • Organize regular workshops where experts from non-related industries are invited to share their insights, sparking creative thinking among team members.
  • Implement programs allowing employees to temporarily work in a different industry, gaining firsthand experience of alternative business practices and technologies.
  • Develop a resource center with materials from various industries, including case studies, white papers, and innovation journals, encouraging self-guided exploration of new innovation concepts.

Establish diverse partnerships

  • Actively seek out joint venture opportunities with companies in unrelated sectors to collaborate on new products or services that blend the strengths of both parties.
  • Participate in consortia that focus on solving broad issues – such as sustainability – where the collective effort and varied perspectives can lead to innovative solutions.
  • Utilize digital networking platforms to connect with thought leaders and practitioners across different sectors, fostering relationships that can evolve into collaborative projects.

Invest in broad R&D

  • Allocate funds for research projects that require expertise from multiple industries, incentivizing teams to explore unfamiliar terrain.
  • Establish dedicated teams responsible for identifying and assessing emerging technologies outside the company’s primary industry that could have potential applications within the company.
  • Sponsor open innovation challenges that invite solutions from all industries, attracting a diverse array of innovative ideas and approaches to address specific company needs.

By implementing these strategies, companies can not only expand their exposure to a wealth of innovative ideas but also position themselves at the forefront of cross-industry innovation, leading to new levels of growth and competitive advantage.

Looking ahead

The role of cross-industry innovation in shaping the future is immense, with renewable energy and artificial intelligence representing two of the most powerful forces in industry today – both of which promise to foster sea-changes well outside their home sectors.

Tesla, for instance, has applied its EV battery tech to the Tesla Powerwall, a home battery system that can be charged using renewable energy sources. The future scalability of such technology promises to upend everything from public transportation to manufacturing to telecommunications.

A.I. and big data analytics represent the vanguard of a new innovation era, with applications that transcend industry boundaries. “Predictive maintenance” in manufacturing that uses A.I. to analyze equipment data and predict failures before they happen is being adopted by the healthcare industry to predict patient deterioration and improve care. A strategic partnership between pharmaceutical companies and tech giants has leveraged A.I. for drug discovery and development – such as Google’s DeepMind partnership with pharma companies to use its machine learning expertise to predict the 3D structures of proteins.

As machine learning algorithms become more sophisticated, their potential to uncover insights and drive innovation in areas like climate change modeling, personalized medicine, and smart city infrastructure continues to expand.

No limits

The potential of cross-industry innovation calls us to break free from the confines of traditional thinking and embrace the interdisciplinary approach, which may hold the key to solving some of our most pressing global challenges. As industries interlace their expertise and knowledge, the possibilities for innovation become boundless, lighting the way to a future rich with potential and discovery.

The lessons of cross-industry innovation are more than just case studies — they are blueprints for a more collaborative, inventive, and sustainable world. The fusion of expertise from disparate fields is proving to be a catalyst for solutions that no single industry could have fostered on its own.


Lessons Learned

  • Drawing insights from unrelated industries can lead to unexpected breakthroughs, showcasing the power of a diversified approach to problem-solving.
  • The ability to adapt and apply technologies across sectors is a hallmark of innovative companies that lead their industries.
  • Strategic partnerships and interdisciplinary teams can unlock new possibilities, making collaboration a cornerstone of successful innovation.


Additional Resources

Special thanks to Tristan Kromer for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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