Nazeer Bhore, manager of breakthrough research at ExxonMobil, explains why it’s dangerous to have tunnel vision if you’re not driving through a tunnel.
I know it may sound counterintuitive, but when you’re testing out new ideas in the lab, the last thing you want is tunnel vision. Breakthrough innovations are a result of starting with an open mind and avoiding singular focus on one specific route. Technology development is unpredictable, and learning from failure advises our future projects.
If breakthroughs were predictable, they wouldn’t be breakthroughs. They’d be expected.
During the early stages of research, my colleagues and I strive to take as much of a panoramic view as possible. As we explore we assess the need, the size of the prize and any learnings from adjacent fields. And, along these long journeys of trial and error—some of which can take more than 10 years—we worry less about detours, because quite frankly it’s the unexpected turns, or pivots, that can lead us to the breakthroughs we didn’t expect.
We test. We learn. We pivot. We repeat.
From idea to prototype, we call this process “the funnel before the tunnel”—giving creativity a wide berth at the front end and narrowing the scope as we approach a solution. And, within that process, we at ExxonMobil go through many different stages, confirming all that we have learned in one stage before going on to the next. With each stage, the risk goes down, yet the investment is higher—sometimes an order of magnitude higher. And, obviously as that path narrows, how we spend that investment gets more defined.
Take our approach to studying commercially viable biofuel, for example. We are currently in the funnel phase in this portfolio approach. As we work on how to produce, in great quantities, algae lipids, which are closer in characteristic to crude oil, we are at the same time studying how fermenting renewable cellulosic sugars can also produce biofuels.
In both of those examples, and many others, ideas are not isolated and kept in their respective silos. To find new things you must start with a collection of ideas and be open to collaboration. Major inventions don’t occur in their own fields; you also need social networks—startups, universities, national labs.
In short, the old mindset of “my lab is my world,” has changed to “the world is my lab,” which is why we have created a network of collaborators across disciplines to join us in the funnel. Today, we are open and interconnected to a world where the R&D community has more access to talent, facilities and capital, which was not the case when I started my career 25 years ago.
For our work on algae, ExxonMobil is collaborating with Synthetic Genomics Inc., the Colorado School of Mines and Michigan State University. Meanwhile, we are working with Renewable Energy Group (REG) and the University of Wisconsin in research that uses cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste.
These partnerships are becoming more common as science becomes more productive in interfacing, allowing us to broaden our view.
Scientific research is like when explorers started out for the first time on a voyage 500 years ago—it wasn’t always clear which way to go. For them, it was a combination of intuition, knowledge and a desire to explore. That desire is fundamental for both the scientist and the pioneer, but the difference is that in the lab, we move forward in a more circuitous pattern as we chart our map through the funnel.