Aug 2, 2020

There’s no place like home for innovators

written by Lisa Eason

Innovators do not just build companies — they can change the culture and consumer habits. Usually they conquer their native countries first with their inventions, and so, typically, the penetration of their products on their home turfs remains higher than anywhere else.

A classic example is the espresso machine. As everyone knows, this device forces nearly boiling water through a handful of ground coffee to deliver a strong cup of hot beverage. Venetian merchants introduced coffee from Africa in the 16th century, and opened the first coffee house in Europe in the city. As a consequence, the Italians have always been coffee pioneers.

Various entrepreneurs in northern Italy produced different coffee-making machines, including Angelo Moriondo of Turin in 1884, Luigia Bezzera of Milan in 1901, and Francesco Illy of Trieste in 1933. The piston-driven machine was developed by Achille Gaggia in 1945. Today, the Italians consume a great deal of espresso coffee, have a high concentration of coffee bars, still manufacture a great many coffee machines and roast a lot of coffee under brands such as Lavazza and Illy. The country’s engineers helped Italy to develop a coffee obsession.

Another example of an inventive company that has altered a nation’s behaviour is Toto in Japan and its bidet toilet seat, introduced in 1980. Now 80% of Japan’s homes have toilets that use a jet of warm water, and Toto has sold almost 55 million of them. Arguably, Japan now has the most hygienic toilets in the word, thanks to the technological advances of Toto, such as aerated water droplets and air deodorisers. No other country has introduced such facilities to anything like the same degree.

A clever product that changed a country’s kitchens was the Quooker. This is a boiling-water tap, and was pioneered by Dutchman Henri Peteri in 1970. He wanted to replace the kettle with an instant dispenser of boiling water for powdered soup. His son, Niels, joined the business, and in 1992 the first product was launched. As a consequence, boiling-water taps are common in Holland but less well known elsewhere, although now available in many countries. While Quooker has rivals, it remains family owned and the brand leader in its niche category.

I am involved with one such business: Brompton folding bicycles. Andrew Ritchie designed the first Brompton in 1975, and his initial factory opened in 1988. Today, the business exports to more than 50 countries and makes an electric bike, too. It has enjoyed its best-ever sales during the lockdown, as more people have taken up cycling to keep fit and avoid public transport. Inevitably, Britain remains its largest market, and, partly as a consequence, folding bicycles are more popular here than in many other countries.

An invention that transformed the way people lived in profound ways was air-conditioning. The vital initiative was taken by Willis Carrier in 1902, when he was just 25 and working in a lithograph facility in Brooklyn, which was suffocatingly hot in the summer. He developed an electrical system for cooling, circulating and cleaning air, and controlling its humidity. He co-founded Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915 with six partners. After the Second World War, mainly thanks to Carrier, air-conditioning became widespread in homes and workplaces across America, and gave a huge boost to productivity and general comfort.

It is now a standard installation in residential and commercial buildings across America, whereas in most other countries it is something of a luxury. Carrier Global Corporation became an independent public company again this year, with annual revenues of almost $19bn (£14.6bn), and remains a world leader in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning. Few industrialists have done more to improve the quality of life for citizens. In some respects, he was a man of his time. “In classic American businessman fashion, Carrier was a Presbyterian, a Republican and a golfer,” says one account of his life.

Another American invention was the Rollaboard suitcase. It was designed by Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath, who turned his case upright, added wheels, and inserted an extendable handle. He founded Travelpro to market his design and introduced the rolling suitcase in 1987, initially selling it to airline crew. It is now ubiquitous, but still more popular across America than anywhere else, partly because Americans fly so much and use on-board luggage so widely. Rolling suitcases mean transporting luggage is much easier than it once was.

We take for granted so many brilliant ideas and the hard graft by entrepreneurs who have transformed our lives in countless ways.