Yasmin Ali speaks to US-based Doug Hall – inventor, whiskey maker, and founder of Eureka! Ranch.
MY name is Yasmin Ali and I’m a chemical engineer working in the energy sector. I was originally attracted to study chemical engineering because of the breadth of career opportunities it provides. To showcase this diversity, I will be talking to a range of fellow chemical engineers to find out what they do, how they got there, and why they do it.
For this instalment, I spoke to US-based Doug Hall, an inventor, whiskey maker, and founder of Eureka! Ranch.
For the past 40 years, Doug has been helping large multinational companies, including Walt Disney, Nike, and American Express, to invent ideas through his company, Eureka! Ranch. The focus is on transformational ideas, rather than small incremental changes. Training and education is provided by another side of the business, helping organisations to create a culture of innovation.
Over the years, Doug has created and quantitatively tested around 25,000 ideas with customers.
“The ideas are like my three children, I love them all, just not always at the same time! Sometimes one is more exciting than others. Right now, my favourite is for everybody to be able to have their own custom bottle of whiskey,” Doug told me, referring to his latest enterprise, Brain Brew Custom Whiskey.
The organisation enables people to have their own, custom-made bottle of whiskey. A visit to the Bourbon Wizard on the website gathers your preferences, and an artificial intelligence app customises a whiskey for you, complete with tasting notes. Alternatively, you can craft your own whiskey at a blending experience.
The idea was born out of Doug’s realisation that the whiskey making process is the reverse of paper making, familiar to him from a former job at a paper mill.
“When you make paper, you apply heat to remove the lignins from the cellulose fibres. When you make whiskey, you put it in a barrel, and it gets warm and cold and warm and cold until you do an extraction of the lignins into the whiskey. It’s the same thing, just backwards,” Doug said.
4,000 experiments later, Brain Brew Whiskey now make award-winning drinks.
Doug’s entrepreneurial skills started early. Aged 12, he created and sold a learn-to-juggle kit; his first business. This happened after his grandmother gave him a ‘learn magic’ kit. He decided to take up juggling to supplement the magic, gaining an edge over "Ring-a-ding-the-clown", who had the children’s birthday party market cornered.
When it was time to choose a university degree, Doug followed his father’s advice and studied chemical engineering.
“My dad said don’t take business, because you already know more than most people,” he said.
Armed with knowledge across a range of engineering disciplines, and a broad understanding of science, Doug took on a role at a paper mill before joining Procter and Gamble’s brand management group. He rose up the ranks, eventually running the invention team.
“We put nine products on the market in 12 months, which is still considered a record for such a small team. I did it not because I was smarter, but because I approached everything as a system, based on the work of W Edwards Deming.”
Deming, an American engineer, is credited with influencing Japan’s rise to the second largest economy in the world post World War II. He taught the idea of approaching manufacturing as a system of interconnected parts, working together to achieve a common aim.
“That focus of approaching innovation and change as a system, where you’re optimising for the whole rather than the parts, was the transformative thing that helped create Eureka! Ranch, Brain Brew Whiskey, and my entire life has been focussed on that.”
Doug’s whole world revolves around inventing things. The day I spoke to him, he was working on a new way to heat his greenhouse.
“To me, the greatest joy is inventing, as a result I do ridiculous over-the-top cooking, wood-fired cooking at stupid temperatures, over-the-top cocktails. Those kinds of things really engage me. I love sailing, kayaking, and the outdoors. I find great inspiration in the outdoors,” he said.
According to Doug, engineers are the key to breakthrough innovations, but they are not taught how to do it. Doug’s understanding of chemical engineering has enabled him to connect the dots between science, manufacturing and the customer, and other engineers can follow in his footsteps.
“Engineers are critical. We need them to not just sit there and complain about stuff, but use those brains. That’s what the world needs.”
Without knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion, basic chemical reactions, electricity, and other fundamental scientific principles, Doug says it is not possible to invent.
“We [Eureka! Ranch] invented two patent pending methods to allow consumers to take frozen fish and make it delicious in about ten minutes. To do that, you’ve got to deal with thermodynamics. There’s no amount of wishing that will make that happen.”
Doug’s book, Driving Eureka, is suitable reading for engineers interested in learning more about innovation. Deming’s book, Out of the Crisis, also comes highly recommended by Doug, and outlines systems thinking.
“That’s what we need for the complexity of today’s world.”
For more articles in this series, visit https://bit.ly/2DZmjA4
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