‘Bear the risk of continuing on the innovator’s path’: Dr. Joseph Nadan

The NYU professor who worked on products like eZpass, CDROM and 16:9 HDTV is coming to the Science Center next week. Get a preview of how to cultivate innovation and what it took to get eZpass off the ground.

Reward success and celebrate failure.

That’s one of Dr. Joseph Nadan‘s mottos for up and coming innovators. He knows a thing or two about innovation: he worked on ubiquitous products like eZpass, CDROM and 16:9 HDTV. Nadan, a professor at the Polytechnic Institute at NYU, is coming to Quorum at the University City Science Center on Tuesday to explain how to become, as he puts its, an “innovation Sherpa.” Social entrepreneurship accelerator GoodCompany Group co-organized the event with NYU and the Science Center.

RSVP for the free March 19 event here.

Below, we get a preview of Nadan’s talk, find out how eZpass got started and learn why he believes location isn’t all that important when it comes to innovation.

How do you become an “innovation Sherpa” through mentoring? What kinds of advice do you have for mentors and mentees?

Coaching and mentoring are two of the key activities of a Sherpa. Coaches focus on behavior and skills development. They motivate and energize and provide feedback on performance. The role of a mentor is to focus on the thinking and perspective of the mentee. They provide experience, challenge perspective and give advice and guidance by listening, doing comparative analysis and suggesting options and ideas.

Mentors and mentees learn from each other and usually build a trusting and long-lasting relationship. I always advise mentors to aim to develop people and get rewarded when they wind up getting wonderful products and services.

What does innovation look like in its very early stages, like what was it like when eZpass was in a super early stage — did people think you guys were crazy? Did you recognize that it was a great idea?

My mantra for innovation Sherpas is to “reward success, celebrate failure and punish inaction.” They have to be willing to bear the risk of continuing on the innovator’s path.

eZpass was not in our thoughts when my co-principal investigator and I won a National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant to study Responsive Electronic Vehicular Instrumentation Systems (“REVIS”) to determine the risk/benefit tradeoffs of enabling a car to periodically identify itself to detectors alongside a highway (note: this was way before smartphones were invented). When we started getting some interesting results, NSF renewed the grant to enable us to address the real-world issues of gaining adoption as well as to transfer the work to the US Department of Transportation or a state transportation agency.


Our results indicated that the highest benefits were from functionalities other than electronic toll collection since collecting paper tickets at the destination was considered to provide a high level of customer satisfaction. Most of the higher benefits (e.g., speed limit enforcement to reduce highway fatalities, elimination of stolen vehicles, reduced time to provide service to a stranded motorist under environmentally challenging conditions, etc.) were not considered to be politically desirable at that time. eZpass was developed as a consequence of some of the presentations that we made to state transportation agencies.

Is location important to innovation? Are you more likely to become an innovation Sherpa in a city like New York or San Francisco?

Today, location is not as important as it used to be. There are many innovation clusters all over the world, and virtual access to them is readily available. Alan Hyman, one of my graduate students, and I will present a paper on “Improved Brainstorming via the Cloud” at the PICMET 2013 Conference in early August in which we will explain how experts may brainstorm at a distance and be assured of full attribution of their contributions. Managers may also use this technology to measure the productivity of each individual participating in a brainstorming session.

While some cities may have clusters of innovation in different industries, innovation work is performed wherever the innovators are located.

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