Learning from opportunities lost

This blog is not about broccoli but about how we develop and benefit from innovation. By reading on to find its relevance to the story, perhaps you will look at broccoli and innovation differently.


Benoit Mandelbrot had an exceptional scientific record across continents, especially for creating the first-ever “theory of roughness”. He saw “roughness” in the shapes of mountains, coastlines and river basins; the structures of plants, blood vessels and lungs; the clustering of galaxies. His personal quest was to create some mathematical formula to measure the overall “roughness” of such objects in nature. Were he alive today, he may have produced a mathematical formula for COVID-19.

Fractals were seen by Mandelbrot as a form of geometric repetition, in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole. Fern leaves and broccoli are examples to which we can relate.

What was pertinent to my discussion with Barry Jones (former Science Minister in the Hawke Labor government) was that Jones had met with Mandelbrot (possibly while Mandelbrot was researching at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where he worked for 35 years to 1987). Jones recalls asking what he was working on and was advised that “they did not know”. Upon returning five years later Jones found that 40 products had been produced from Mandelbrot’s research to that point. His work, developed entirely outside mainstream research, led to modern information theory.

Which leads me to what geniuses do we have in our midst, outside mainstream research, with the capability to add value to our store of solutions were they provided the financial freedom to explore where innovation takes them. And do we have the commercial sophistication to advance their genius without impatience, greed and exploitation?


For over 20 years I was an associate of one such genius: Dr John Steiner, an Austrian born Australian, who completed his PhD in Physical Chemistry and Instrumentation at the University of Queensland.

Much of his work involved management of gases and odour – across medical, sewerage, agriculture and energy sectors. Ever, like Mandelbrot, Steiner operated outside mainstream research. He offered simple solutions, sophisticated in execution. There are many:

  • 4DS technology for the treatment of airborne contaminants , most pertinent to COVID-19 conditions. 4DS technology could Deodorise, Disinfect, Detoxify, Decontaminate and Sterilise airborne contaminants by releasing specially designed vapour from a molecular vapour generator. At a molecular level, rather than particulate (as from a common spray can) the molecules are able to penetrate and destroy the contaminant. Steiner said he had also had success at an atomic level – i.e. atoms are smaller than molecules. 4DS technology was developed following the SARS outbreak.
  • Applications of 4DS to enclosed spaces include: hospitals, hotels, airports, high rise rubbish wells and water sanitation systems. His simple solution to dealing with dangerous hydrogen sulphide in sewerage channels was to prevent hydrogen sulphide from bonding, rather than try to manage the outcome with expensive chemical treatments.

We can see how valuable those innovations would be today.

Without a wealthy patron (like IBM for Mandelbrot), the inexorable compulsion of the innovator in John Steiner carried on under financial pressure, when he had already persevered through so much.

Early Steiner innovations

My first contact with John Steiner was at a post-graduate function looking at the commercialisation of technology, my area of interest. At that time he was involved in odour control of feedlots and off-grid septic and toilet systems.

Previously he had developed virtually instantaneous, long lasting odour control of ostomy bags. Interest was expressed from the four global producers of ostomy bags who wanted the technology but were reluctant to pay a fair price. The ostomy bag technology could have readily been converted to face masks and body bags had there been a patient financier/manufacturer willing to back John Steiner.

Since then there have been countless times, like today during COVID-19, when contaminant and odour repellent face masks and body bags could be used, as well as his 4DS technology for the decontamination of shared space.

Ever innovative, in response to demands in the 1990s, John Steiner turned his genius towards cleaner energy from coal fired power stations. Emissions, he believed, were a function of inefficient combustion. His simple solution, sophisticated in execution, was to improve the efficiency of combustion by harvesting and adding gases at high temperature and high speed during the combustion process. A further innovation was the rapid heating of fuel (coal) entering the retort, which again presented operational and environmental savings.

Timing is critical to commercial success. Changes in research funding from Energy R&D to the Australian Greenhouse Office meant research funding, though granted, became unavailable for John’s project. At the same time, corporatisation of the power stations meant that industry partners, from which government had harvested profits, had nothing left to invest in innovation.

Over the years, approaches to various energy producers, governments and financiers suffered similar fates: technical excitement at lower levels of operation and outright deprecation of the scientist by those in government and management decision-making roles. Mere minnows of scientific endeavour were ever anxious to maintain their superiority in negotiations rather than seek solutions for the good of the business, or the country. They won the day and lost the future.

All that genius came to a tragic end when Dr John Steiner was swept overboard, hit by the boom of a yacht sailing in Moreton Bay 20 December 2010. He was never seen again.

What can we learn, if we are willing

 To become a more resilient nation, it is imperative we capitalise on local enterprise. More than twenty years working in the commercialisation field has taught me a number of things. Firstly, we need more intelligent, sophisticated investors from private enterprise and government if we are to attain successful outcomes. Financiers and marketers need to be as smart in their field as the scientist, not smart-arsed as so many proved to be.

Secondly, investors need to be patient with chemical, biological or technical processes which take time to prove, if one is looking for certainty. Steiner suffered great cost and aggravation of legal wrangling from a highly influential businessman who wanted confirmation of process before it was scientifically verifiable.

Thirdly, greed is an innovation killer. A common psychological phenomenon of commercialisation of clever innovation is that a greedy investor wants to capture everything right away and eliminate the innovator. They may end up with one product/project, yet miss spin-off options that emerge from the developer’s inner compulsion to create, like Mandelbrot. Perhaps investors believe they can do it all themselves, but they do not carry the spirit of creativity that will flourish a business by staying in contact with the source and subsequent innovation.

Visiting the Walt Disney museum in San Francisco I found the same thing had happened to Walt Disney. Having developed the first ever three animated cartoons, Walt found his partner cutting him out of the business. A partner less greedy and more honourable could have benefited from the global enterprise that later emerged from Disney’s compulsive creativity that now entertains millions around the globe and employs thousands of people. The enduring message is that with patience there will be plenty for everyone.

Had John Steiner been blessed with better fortune, his innovations could be servicing us now in our hour of need, just as he intended.

Finally, scientists, engineers and innovators need to be savvy about who and how to deal with investors. John Steiner was a courteous, slow speaking person prone to engaging into technicalities. He was a poor match for the slick, fast talking, condescending investor decision-making elites, so it was hard to traverse the boundaries to reap benefits.

Today we are the worse off because of the failure of those with the largesse to pick up the opportunities to make this world a better, safer, more sustainable place. Let’s learn from missed opportunities, so all can benefit and prosper in the future.

v[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benoit_Mandelbrot

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.