Imagine you’re trying to get to the hospital to have your firstborn child. You’ve got to get from your house to the hospital without stopping at any red lights. If that means you need to switch lanes in a way you wouldn’t normally to get through a green light, you’ll do it.
That kind of decision-making — and the discomfort of uncertainty — is what innovators go through on a regular basis, says Michael Crowley, co-founder and CEO of InfoMotion Sports Technologies Inc.
“I get approached all the time by people who have been in the corporate world, and they want to jump into something like we do in this world, the innovation world,” he says. “(But) we take on risks that our stomachs are callus to — it would make most people throw up.
“If you ever did a reality TV show of what it’s really like, people would probably never do it,” Crowley says. “It’s very fast moving and you’ve just got to have a stomach for it.”
Find your white space
InfoMotion, Crowley’s latest startup, is being recognized globally for the innovation in its first product, the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball.
The ball measures shooting arc, shot release speed, dribble intensity, speed and shot backspin to provide instantaneous data and feedback to an app.
Crowley says when the company was founded in 2008, they had to invent a product that would highlight their technology expertise. That in turn would be the baseline from which to launch a tech company.
InfoMotion needed to find its own white space in the market by tackling something too hard and too complex for large companies to attempt, rather than go into something like fitness wearables and get lost in the noise.
“So, what can we own and be ahead of the market without being so far ahead that we figure these things out, but die as a company?” he says.
“I don’t know if we could have picked a more difficult product than the basketball to start with,” Crowley says. “There are so many forces that get applied to that thing, so it’s very difficult from a motion standpoint to perfect, like we have.”
Be nimble, work backwards
During development, InfoMotion did two important things. It outsourced everything it could so it’s easy to dial up or back, and it didn’t start with the technology.
Crowley says they designed backwards from the customer, rather than starting with the innovation. For example, InfoMotion had to find new ways to process complex information within 10 milliseconds and figure out how to turn the basketball on and off without buttons.
“It’s the process of working backwards from knowing what is going to create an amazing experience for the customers when they use a single product — that becomes transferable into any product out there that can have a different form factor, even a different fitness application or medical application,” Crowley says.
“It feeds our ability now to work with really the largest companies in the world that come to us and say, ‘How can you help us do what you did with the ball?’”
And the multiyear development process is paying off. InfoMotion just received a prestigious CES Innovation Award from the Consumer Electronics Association for its software and app.
The ball also was named one of the top 25 inventions of 2014 in Time magazine.
A fresh angle
Innovators have a different risk appetite than the corporate world, and Crowley says if you’re afraid to be different, you get washed away in the speed of tech.
He speaks to companies like General Electric on innovation all the time, and those teams are stunned to hear what it’s like.
“We try to reduce every decision we make as quickly as we can, just finding facts, saying, ‘What is the best calculated risk we can take with the finite resources we have?’” Crowley says. “If you can get good at that, as an innovator, then you have a chance. But it still doesn’t guarantee your success by any stretch.”
The innovator looks at the fat part of the bell curve as an opportunity, while the corporate world looks at the tails.
“It’s that risk of loss that drives them,” he says.
The innovator may know that there’s 20 percent that could go wrong, but if he or she can figure out the other 80 percent, the upside is enticing and valuable.
“I’m not really a corporate guy. I’m so much on the other side. I only see what I see when I speak to them and I hear the same thing every time,” Crowley says. “They always get to that point of: But what if it goes wrong?
“Well, then it goes wrong. That’s why they call it risk. If you don’t take it, somebody else is going to come in and out innovate you and you’re going to lose anyway.”
Protect what you have
Since 1995, Crowley has been the founder or co-founder of multiple early-stage businesses and technology ventures. As such, he has significant experience in managing intellectual property strategy and negotiating IP licensing deals.
IP is an interesting area because people think once they are issued a patent, the company is worth something, he says. But that’s just smoke and mirrors.
“What I always tell people is a patent is only worth something — even if you have it issued — once it’s been challenged in court and you win, which only happens about 2 or 3 percent of the time,” Crowley says.
In order to really protect yourself, hire experts.
“We pay a lot of money to great IP attorneys,” he says of InfoMotion. “That’s my best advice — find the best, don’t skimp.
“From day one with this company, we got the best in the world, I think, and you pay a premium. But if you want to build anything of value, you need that.”
As an executive, you also need to do some self-learning about the difference between trade secrets vs. patents and how to manage those, he says.
It is important to remember that IP is only part of the equation.
“It’s a combination of many things — your IP, your know-how, the people, the systems you learn, the things you can bring to the table from the market (and) the growth,” Crowley says.