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How to disrupt an industry: Three lessons from the coal face

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In 2008, in a tourist market dominated by global hotel chains, two young men decided to launch an accommodation provider that did not own any accommodation. 

Hoteliers the world over would have probably raised their eyebrows and thought it would never work – after all they operated in an industry that was at the time, very sure of itself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

But this fledgling company – which still owns no property – grew to become AirBnB and the founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, created the world’s largest accommodation provider in less than seven years. The business is thought to be worth $20bn.

This is disruptive innovation: innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect. The most disruptive organisations are those that have rocked their marketplaces because they created offerings their competitors thought (and in some cases continue to think) would never work.

Disruptive HIV testing

Here is my example. More than 30 years after the first ever HIV diagnosis, more than 110,000 people in the UK are living with HIV and experts estimate that as many as a quarter of these people are unaware that they have it. This group is unknowingly responsible for the majority of onward transmissions.

For me, devising a disruptive healthcare innovation started from this. If people are unaware they might have HIV, they are unlikely to visit a clinic to get an HIV test, or they may be reluctant to even have a test because of the misinformed stigma still associated with HIV and AIDS.

In April, we launched Europe’s first CE-marked HIV self test, which allows people to test themselves for HIV, wherever and whenever they choose to. It gives users their result in 15 minutes. It’s similar to a pregnancy test, with a greater than 99.7 per cent accuracy.

HIV still carries a huge amount of taboo and stigma, but for the first time since its discovery, people suspecting they might have been exposed to the virus have been empowered to test themselves, with no 3rd party involvement. Anecdotal data so far suggests an increase in the number of people testing and that barriers to testing, including discretion, are being overcome.

I began my career in fast-moving consumer goods and my now competitors, large pharmaceutical companies, never thought someone without a corporate pharmaceutical background could develop a product which would disruptive their stable market so quickly. 

This is how the most disruptive innovations take form, because the people who are capable at looking at the market from a completely different angle are the ones who can spot the gap and the need for change.

What is my advice to you?

(1) Look for a need

Research, research and do some more research. Don’t just Google – if you think you’re on to an idea, speak to relevant industry bodies, carry out focus groups with the target demographic. 

You might not always hear what you want to hear, but I can almost guarantee it will save you a lot of time and money in the long term. We carried out months of research including a huge array of pilot studies. 

Knowing your market is critical. We worked with the British Standards Institute and performed our clinical studies at University College Hospital and finally gained our robust CE certificate – the first in the world for an HIV self test.

Think about the bigger picture. How will your new innovation impact on society? Think about how you can use it to develop collaborations with partners (in our case HIV organisations) as well as clients and prospects.

(2) Persevere 

Any entrepreneur’s journey is one of dizzying highs and devastating lows. Keep focused when those bumps appear – your innovation will make a difference. 

Work together, support each other or if you’re on your own, lean on friends, family and business peers to ensure you keep going, no matter how challenging it becomes. 

Never doubt yourself. According to business advisory company, AT Kearney, innovation can be learned and embedded into the culture of the organisation. Innovative companies share a number of virtues: transparency and sharing ideas; great communication channels; empowerment of staff to come up with ideas; great knowledge of their marketplace; and a long term view.

(3) Create a disruption hub

Work to create a corporate culture where challenge is the norm, where innovation is actively encouraged and the default option is to ask not tell. 

Hold up examples of what has worked and failed, invest in people’s ideas, try new things, keep piloting ideas and critically identify the innovators and give them space to experiment. 

Give your people the space – and the confidence – to fail; not every idea will work, but this is how innovation works. It is about constant learning and improvement, so failure is tantamount to progress. 

Brigette Bard is founder of BioSure UK and of social enterprise Last Taboo.

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