As Bob Metcalfe from 3Com pointed out more than 15 years ago, invention is not innovation although often it’s a part of it. In visiting our local Burger King recently, the younger set was fascinated by the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that offered 100 flavor variations at the push of a button.
Out of curiosity about how this new product manifestation works, we did a bit of digging and uncovered an innovation story with a twist. While at first blush the innovation appears to be in the product - morphing the variety of a soda fountain into a vending machine - the more compelling story is about distribution, delivery and support.
Here’s how the story goes. Building on what scientists know about insulin dosing, the inventor Dean Kamen and his firm DEKA Research, designed the “beverage jukebox” for Coca-Cola as a novel branding and merchandising tool. Then, applying that same technology in the same footprint, Kamen created a machine, dubbed the Slingshot, that takes any liquid and turns it into clean drinking water. Powered by a Stirling engine running on a combustible fuel source, clean water is produced by means of vapor compression distillation (for the engineers in the crowd). With this new machine, innovation is catapulted far beyond the physical bounds of the invention itself. Coca-Cola has the potential to harness its existing infrastructure, comprised of more than 300,000 employees in Africa alone, so that the program can take root and succeed in its mission to bring clean drinking water to the developing world. In reaching this target, the Slingshot has both efficiency and longevity in mind as it was built with the identical footprint as the commercial Coca-Cola vending machines, allowing it to flow through existing systems just as seamlessly as drinkable content flows through its innovative internal design. So when your kids’ eyes light up in wonder when they make their drink selection from a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, think about Kamen’s ambitious goal to develop a technology that would transform the 97% of water that is undrinkable into water that can be used and consumed on the spot, readily and inexpensively.
Late breaking flash: At SXSW today, TOMS, the shoe maker, announced an initiative to get into the coffee business and a portion of the sales will be donated to the nonprofit organization Water for People. Is the Coca-Cola or TOMS approach more innovative? More importantly, which approach do you think will be more effective?