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A race-goer poses in her hat on the first day of racing at Royal Ascot in southern England (LUKE MACGREGOR/LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS)
A race-goer poses in her hat on the first day of racing at Royal Ascot in southern England (LUKE MACGREGOR/LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS)

Innovations

Old hat in one industry can be breakthrough in another Add to ...

Thirty years ago, I was lucky enough to get a job in the construction business. The opportunity allowed me to pull a grubstake together after my time in graduate school at the State University of New York. Just in case you were wondering, "my time in graduate school" is code for I didn't quite finish my PhD in economics.

One day I was given the task of cutting a roomful of closet rods down to size using a hacksaw and a sawhorse. Luckily I had noticed a plumber working on the job site using a pipe-cutting tool that was specifically designed to make short, accurate and clean work of cutting a round tube instead of the long, inaccurate, and messy results of using a hacksaw and sawhorse for the effort. Needless to say the job was completed quickly and I got on to other tasks.

When I left the construction business, my next adventure was in the restaurant business. I needed to generate an evening seating and had little luck given my location. But as life would have it, I attended a performance at an improvisational theatre where the talent wasn't being paid.

Having grown up in New York, I had spent many an evening at comedy clubs. It didn't take long to recruit some talent with the offer of compensation and provide the public a night of comedy in a place where they could sit and enjoy a meal and a drink.

The point I want to leave you with is that what is a standard tool, process, activity, or procedure in one area could become an innovation in another. The most recent example of this that I noticed is the zeroG line of mechanical arms developed by Equipois Inc. which is based in Los Angeles. On July 15, 2010, the company was selected as the recipient of the International Stevie Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year, North America.

The mechanical arms are used in manufacturing and provide a support system for tools such as riveters, grinders, drills, and sanders that can weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg). Imagine the stress and strain on workers' shoulders and arms as they repetitively hoist these tools into position, day after day, year after year.

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Deployment of the zeroG system in the automotive, aerospace, heavy machinery and many other manufacturing environments has improved efficiency and reduced the cost associated with worker injuries. The payback period on a zeroG system is estimated at one year which makes it very attractive as an investment.

The principals of Equipois developed the zeroG system in concert with Garrett Brown, who pioneered the Steadicam camera stabilization system that has become a standard in film and television production. Once again the standard from one business provided a breakthrough in others. But it didn't happen overnight.

The Steadicam was invented in 1976 and didn't migrate to other sectors for decades despite tons of exposure. If you have ever watched programs such as Entertainment Tonight you will have seen the Steadicam at some point and the system has even won an Oscar. So it's not like it was hidden in some skunk works shielded from prying eyes.

There are many things that drive innovation. Some are completely original breakthroughs such as Garrett Brown's creation of the Steadicam. Others arise from an observant character making the connection between the innovations that they have seen and how it might solve another set of similar problems.

Mr. Brown holds 50 worldwide patents for camera systems including Skycam, Divecam, and SuperFlycam. The possible adaptive opportunities of these mechanisms are only waiting for the right eureka moment.

Equipois Inc. is a private company that has raised two rounds of financing. Not being that bright, but somewhat observant, I am putting the company on my watch list for news of an initial public offering.

Happy Capitalism!

Special to The Globe and Mail

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