A recent announcement about a new medical device led me to an inspiring vignette about innovation. It was a reminder how chance encounters can lead to new ideas. Stephen King once wrote that good story ideas happen when “two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.” In a way, that also describes how a chance meeting led to the discovery of Bioglass.
Bioglass might be familiar to dental surgeons, orthodontists, and orthopedic surgeons, but it was new to me. The material can serve as a replacement for bone structure, or for tooth enamel, and a key feature of it is that the body does not reject it. After reading about Bio2’s new use for the material, I followed the material’s story back over four decades to a conversation on a bus.
In 1968, Larry Hench was searching for ceramics to use in spacecraft. He wanted to find a material that could withstand whatever space had to offer, including the onslaught of cosmic radiation. As Dr. Hench described it in a 2013 article, his enthusiasm about work prompted him to strike up a conversation with a military officer next to him on a shuttle bus. The officer then presented Hench with another challenge: why not take on the rigors of the human body instead of outer space?
The officer had just returned from Vietnam, and had witnessed the shortcomings of implants for treating war injuries. The body rejected so many of the attempted repairs of bones, the officer wondered whether someone like Hench could find a material that the body would accept.
That conversation redirected Hench’s career. Inspired Hench left the space ceramics project and dedicated himself toward discovering the substance that would be known as Bioglass. That material and related ones have shown up in many applications, including dental surgery, a toothpaste that strengthens tooth enamel, an ear implant, and now Bio2’s bone scaffolding technology.
Bio2’s innovation came in part from an unexpected intersection of ideas. For me, it was a good reminder that inspiration can come from anywhere, anytime, if we remain alert and receptive to it. Would we have anything like Bioglass today, if one of those men had kept his story to himself rather than being open to conversation with a stranger?