The Boston software company Invention Machine will have you believe their product can make the traditional "Eureka!" moment obsolete.
Instead of the common path to new ideas -- which is often marked by painful trial-and-error, endless, aimless brainstorming sessions and a healthy dose of luck -- Invention Machine's Goldfire application is meant to spark "sustainable innovation." (Invention Machine is rather prone to such marketing-speak, as software makers tend to be.)
Essentially, companies can use the vendor's software create "a process to innovate on a regular, repeatable basis," said Jeff Boehm, vice president of marketing and strategy.
Innovation can come in many forms, Boehm added. "It's not just coming up with a brand-new product, but how can I improve it?"
A type of toilet valve is a case in point, but first a little more about the software, which is used in 25 countries, with more than half of Invention Machine's business in Europe. The privately held company has about 200 employees and has had "sustained profitable growth" for years, Boehm said.
Customers include Delphi, Sony and Shell, the last of which has used the Goldfire platform in investigating new ways to produce biofuels.
Goldfire is a type of workbench for taking on various tasks, such as "analyze a market" and "develop new product." Once a user chooses a task, a wizard-like interface helps them work through a methodology for completing it.
For example, in step one of "design a new system," the user would search a variety of sources for existing products or technology that reflect the system's desired function. In the next phase, a user would determine the core reasons why the existing system or product isn't working satisfactorily. In a third phase, users would develop a conceptual design.
To help users find the right answers, the software pulls in information from a variety of internal and external sources, such as a corporate knowledge base and patent information databases. Invention Machine has also developed proprietary technical content stores that are included with the software.
For managers, the software provides "innovation metrics" that track overall system activity and usage trends, and gives insight into specific projects.
Among other disciplines, Goldfire employs the methodology known as Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving (TRIZ) developed in the former Soviet Union. Ideation International also makes software leveraging TRIZ.
Now, about that toilet valve.
Overall, Goldfire's approach is working well for Dave Pierson, senior design engineer at MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network), a nonprofit organization in Ohio that assists manufacturers.
A tool like Goldfire focuses the brain and helps speed up the product development process, Pierson said.
"We have a formalized process for brainstorming, but the problem there is that personalities get involved," since a person with a bad idea but a strong personality can derail such sessions, he said.
Pierson recently used the software to help develop the Siphon Flush, a new antileak toilet valve, for the Frisco, Texas, company American Innovative Products, which declares that its business is "in the toilet."
The device stops water leakage and lasts far longer than traditional flapper valves, according to the company.
There's perhaps no more telling indication of the product's innovation, however, than the fact that it can flush 21 golf balls at one time, washing out the "industry standard" of 12.
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