Disruptive Innovation

Innovation is a continual process, building upon the past to improve the future.  Often this means small, incremental steps that chip away at a larger problem.  Sometimes, by accident or design, those changes aren’t so small.  These massive changes are a disruptive innovation that can redefine what is possible.

It used to be that the winner of the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Context would eat roughly 20 hotdogs (the world record in 2000 was 25 1/8).  There would be small increases year to year, but the results would fluctuate by a few hot dogs at most.  Then, in 2001, Takeru Kobayashi burst on to the scene and trounced the competition by eating 50 hotdogs.  How was this huge leap forward made possible?  Kobayashi had come up with a new, dramatically more efficient way to eat a hotdog.  This was a disruptive innovation.

But this innovation didn’t happen by accident.  Kobayashi, who is only 5’ 8” and weighs 128 lbs was far from the biggest competitor.  His advantage came because of his meticulous approach to the problem, questioning assumptions and developing new strategies.  Instead of eating the hot dogs in the buns, as most competitors did, he took the hot dog out of the bun, broke it in half, and then ate it.  Meanwhile, he dunked the bun into his water and then stuffed the soggy bread into his mouth.  He arrived at this technique by treating the contest like a science experiment.  He would videotape his training sessions and then analyze what worked and what didn’t.[1]

Many big breakthroughs occur in much the same way.  A goal is set, and researchers look for new ways to achieve that goal.  In Kobayashi’s case, that was eating as many hot dogs as possible in 12 minutes.  JFK set a similar challenge when he declared in 1962 that we were going to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.  That goal took 7 years and thousands of researchers developing hundreds of disruptive innovations across a number of fields.  But in the end, something that once was thought impossible, became a reality.

RSA does similar disruptive innovation.  When I first joined RSA in 2007, we had just been acquired by EMC which was busy helping to define cloud computing. As a result, we spent several years developing cloud security tools.  We’ve published numerous papers and patents around cloud security, demonstrating how to better trust computation and storage without physical control over the hardware.  Our work in this space remains some of the most highly cited security research of the past decade[2][3].

Since then we’ve branched out into a number of other research areas.  Pay attention to this space over the coming months as the other members of the team will be providing updates on current research efforts, trends they’re seeing, or research they find interesting. Our hope is that someday soon enterprises will better detect malware and users will more easily authenticate because of the disruptive innovations we’re working on now.

[1] .  If you want to know more about Kobayashi, I highly recommend the Freakonomics podcast – “A Better Way to Eat” (http://freakonomics.com/2015/07/01/a-better-way-to-eat-a-freakonomics-radio-rebroadcast/).

[2] PORs: Proofs of retrievability for large files.  A. Juels, B.S. Kaliski Jr in Computer and Communications Security (CCS) 2007

[3] HAIL: A High-Availability and Integrity Layer for Cloud Storage.  K.D. Bowers, A. Juels, and A. Oprea in Computer and Communications Security (CCS) 2009.

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