On Imaginal Disks and Innovation: Business Lessons from the Science Pages

The poetry of metamorphosis is inescapable, even when pared down to the “just the facts ma’am” bare bones science. The transformation of chubby grubs into precision aerialists, or hungry caterpillars into nector-sipping butterflies and moths, or fish-ish tadpoles into operatic frogs is as matter-of-fact and breathtakingly wondrous as Cinderella’s pumpkin-turned-carriage and mice-turned-footman.

Surely there must be a wand involved. 

Metamorphosis, of course, is the original metaphor, and so mesmerizing and powerful that understanding the mechanics doesn’t seem to diminish the mystery. 

How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.

— Feris Jabr, Scientific Amerian

Imaginal disks. Imagine that. The metaphor goes even deeper. 

Now imagine this: Metamorphosis is closer to a rule rather than an exception of life on Earth: By some estimates, as many as 90% of all insects (which dominate in the species count) shape-shift. Add in a few vertebrates and the tally may be as high as 65% of all species. 

Scientists are still puzzling the “why” details, but one theory suggests that by seeking different food sources, youngsters and the adults are not competing for the same limited resources, so there is literally more food to go around. 

IMAGINAL INNOVATION 

I have been thinking a lot about imaginal disks and innovation over the last few weeks: the unseen latent potential to transform from one business to another—a service to a good, a good to a service, past as prologue. 

"Think different"—Apple’s famous tagline—turns out to be the rallying cry of all things imaginal. It would have taken a sharp eye to have seen 20 years ago the proto music / video / books service, the smart phone empire or the tablet revolution within a niche player computer company. Of course, those developments depended on improvements in web technologies and bandwidth—which, to stretch the analogy, are a kind of new food source. Those proto-businesses were there, waiting for the right moment, the right environment, to grow. 

TO BE(E) THIS, OR TO BE(E) THAT: more from the biomimic business beat

Genes, it turns out, are more of a rough template of possibility, rather than roll-of-the-die certainty, and that the dance of Nature versus Nurture is considerably more dynamic and subtle than previously thought. 

Honeybees are the ultimate “twins” study: all the workers in a hive are genetically identical. Yet some spend their lives serving the queen, while others flit among the flowers. If it is not written in the genetic code, what determines this division of labor?  

This is one of those sleeper stories snoozing in the “sci-tech” section, but one that really, truly is quite a big deal with ramifications that go on to the horizon. 

Think of genes like little light bulbs that can be toggled on or off. A gene exists within an environment and changes in that environment can determine whether it toggles on or off. This is called epigenetics, ”the study of heritable changes that occur without a change in the DNA sequence” (epi from the Greek word meaning “upon”). In  other words, outside factors can affect genetic expression.

These toggle on/toggle off states—and the traits that they program—can be inherited, which is petty amazing. Perhaps even more amazing, though, is that these states and traits can change within a single lifetime. 

…(A)nalysis of the worker bees’ DNA revealed that foragers had one pattern of chemical tags on their genes, while those that stayed home had another. When bees swapped one job for the other, their genetic tags changed accordingly. Scientists call these patterns epigenetic states, because they work on top of the normal genetic code.

The study is thought to be the first to show that reversible chemical markers on genes might drive different behaviours in a living creature.

—Ian Sample, The Guardian

From the itty bittiest of cellular micro, to the macro of planetary climate change, environment can determine destiny. 

Is your head spinning yet? 

BACK TO BUSINESS

For the last year, I have been following the tech startup scene in my hometown Chicago fairly closely. There are about a dozen businesses that I have found particularly compelling, not just for the needs they address (although SpotHero, every time I pay less for parking downtown, I am so darn happy…), but also for their “imaginal disks.” The businesses that will go the distance will be those able both to scale up, and also have the potential to scale out: to transform and grow into suites of new businesses. 

Whether it is a travel service with a Harry Potter-ish potential that can grow its business as its target clientele ages (Travel 720), or an academic publishing platform that opens the door for all kinds of new journals (Scholastica), or a children’s clothing business that is building valuable “network equity” as it expands (Moxie Jean), these businesses are rich with latent possibilities. 

Like the bees, they have all the genes. We’ll just have to wait and see what toggles on. 

— J. A. Ginsburg @TrackerNews

RELATED: 

A Chicago Tale of Parking, Innovation, Bad Deals and Better Options

SpotHero has, indeed, become my hero. The Expedia of local parking—pre-selling parking lot spaces, often at a discount—has made Chicago a little more do-able in the aftermath of the now fomer Mayor Daley’s parking privitization fiasco. 

Bargains can be especially good in the evening. And there is something slightly “treasure hunt” about it, too. Once you purchase a space (payment via Amazon, which is one-click easy and secure), you print out a map with directions that thoughtfully include details such as “the entrance will be on the right” (even though the street number suggests the left) and “just before Miller’s Pub.” 

It turns out there is an unexpectedly fascinating labyrinth of parking beneath Chicago’s streets. What the Palmer House underground garage, for example, may lack in user-friendly design (some really tight turns on the way down—iffy for an SUV), it makes up for in architectural detail (not the pretty kind, but the kind where you get to see the roots of a building) and Downton Abbey vibe. Two floors up and you find yourself in the Palmer’s “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” lobby, surrounded by glorious ceiling frescos and Tiffany statues, strolling on whimsical Paisley carpeting. It is enough to make you forget where you were going.

Liberace was the resident pianist here until 1947—a startling stray fact and a reminder of an era, sadly bygone, when parking wasn’t quite such a problem. 

••••••

It certainly is a problem now. Sitting in the sold-out Chase Auditorium (of "Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!" fame), listening to entrepreneurs give it their all the other night at a Technori Pitch, it occurred to me that the City could have used the services of start up It’s Agreedwhich provides online contracts designed to simplify and organize agreements—when it negotiated that gobsmackingly bad parking deal. 

Instead, taxpayers—and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren—are saddled with a contract literally hundreds of pages long, and so badly written, the City is on the hook for millions of dollars worth of parking meter fees waived for the disabled, along with revenue lost when streets are closed for repair, movie shoots or neighborhood festivals. 

Should anyone be surprised that the city’s street parking sell off continues to look worse and worse?

Here’s a hint: the answer is no.

In a certain place and time—Chicago City Hall, 2008—a billion bucks may have seemed like a lot of dough for a few thousand antiquated parking meters.

Then Chicagoans realized that the city had also hocked its ability to control street traffic, granted police powers to a private entity, and committed to parking fee and fine increases for the next several decades

—Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader

The $1.5 billion Chicago received upfront for the 75-year deal (and has now spent) is, by some accounts, just a tenth of the revenue the meters will generate—even less if meter rates continue to skyrocket. Adding insult to injury, not only is the revenue lost to the Chicago, but a good chunk is departing the country, finding its way into the coffers of the government of Abu Dhabi. 

This means that billions of dollars that might have been spent to shore up and expand the metro area’s public transportation system, providing an affordable, safe, considerably less expensive and greener alternative, have been syphoned off. 

And that impacts Chicago’s competiveness. 

Over the last few months, nervous speculators have been driving oil prices to record levels, with the spector of $6 per gallon gasoline by summer. Good public transportion could easily become the key differentiator that shifts the value balance of one city over another—no tax incentives required. The (lean) bottom line: Companies need employees that can afford to commute. 

On the bright side, should gas prices go that high, fewer people will be able to afford to drive, leaving lots of privatized parking spaces empty—a sort of Don’t Occupy movement for cars. 

Now, juat add a carpooling service. For example, Zimride, a San Francisco-based start up that that just closed a $6 million funding round last fall. Like SpotHero, Zimride brokers unusued inventory—in this case, the seats in a car—adding a social network spin to the deal. Although to date primarily operating in colleage towns, they have, by their accounting, helped users travel over 100 million miles. 

So more people filling more seats in fewer cars, enjoying mutual savings, and finding bargain parking spots.  

Great public transportation is the best answer, but this could be, at least, a better one.

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews