In Mansouri Land, good ideas belong to everyone
The reason why he keeps taking the risk again and again is that the fear of failure was turned into a driving force in him when - as a young high school student in the United States - he was faced with a crucial choice. In the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 - as an emigrant from Iran - Mansouri was met with many prejudices from his surroundings. He could give up or he could fight to be accepted - and he chose the latter.
“I taught myself to focus on what I had in common with people, rather than focusing on what separated us. In this way, I built bridges between myself and others. Today, this is like a primal instinct in me: I have to put myself into play with other people. If I stay in my comfort zone, I won’t achieve anything,” he says.
This approach taught Mansouri to break down language, cultural, and social barriers between himself and the other high school students. Later on, his chemistry teacher Margaret became an important ally who taught him how to translate social skills and solid academic competency into concrete action. Mansouri remembers how one day she told him to go to the window and close his eyes.
“’What do you see?,’ she asked, and I replied: ‘I see nothing’. ‘Exactly,’ she said. “Precisely because you see nothing, there is nothing to prevent you from creating the world you want. Just close your eyes and imagine it’,” Seyed Mansouri recalls.
He remembers how buildings, shops, and people suddenly appeared from behind his closed eyelids. A entire small country, which he named Mansouri Land. Seyed Mansouri still travels to Mansouri Land today when something is difficult or cannot be done. Here he creates what he thinks is missing, and when he reopens his eyes, it seems less difficult to do it in reality.
Profit not a driving force
Recently, the popular science news media sciencenews.dk wrote an article about Seyed Mansouri’s vaccine idea, which—with the help of the German students—became a viable business concept.
The containers are still ‘only’ a drawing on a piece of paper and a lot of calculations showing that it can be done. It will take millions of kroner of funding to get them built and thoroughly tested, and it has also turned out that there is a competitor on the market working on exactly the same idea. The competitor has big muscles and lots of resources. Seyed Mansouri has himself and a group of students.
He nevertheless talks in details about the project and its future potential in the popular science article.
“What we have done here is actually the beginning of some sort of conceptual way of thinking. For example, the MOD production units can be used to cultivate novel types of protein such as microalgae or the like, to rapidly provide some source of food, making communities more resilient to famine, or they can even be repurposed for small-scale production of cancer vaccines,” he tells sciencenews.dk.
The dissemination of idea and knowledge is yet another example of Seyed Mansouri following his own rules when it comes to innovation. Without considering the competitor’s interests in his knowledge, he accepts that lifting the veil could mean that someone else wins the final sprint to the finish line.
“If someone can do something better than me - such as turning my idea into a business - let them do it. I do like money, but it isn’t the money that drives me,” he says.
Nor is it the striving for ownership, recognition, or honour that drives Mansouri. Something completely different is at stake. In his own words, he will not be able to live with a solution of benefit to society and with the potential to make life better for millions of people simply remaining a good idea. That is why he shares his ideas left, right, and centre.
When the coronavirus pandemic raged for the second year running and the whole world was queuing up to get the first vaccine shot, Associate Professor at DTU Chemical Engineering Seyed Mansouri had a good idea.
He could see how bottlenecks in the production and supply chain pushed the poorest citizens in the world’s developing countries to the back of the queue. He wanted to solve this problem by decentralizing the production of vaccines, making them available to everyone.
An idea proposal, an application to the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and a rejection later, Mansouri decided to take his idea to a major European competition for university students. Here he made the idea public as a competition with the main question: Who can turn idea into concept?
Three BA students from Germany won and—with Mansouri as supervisor—they continued the work. The result was recently published on the cover of the scientific journal Industrial Engineering and Chemistry Research: A mobile container unit that, located close to its end users, can produce up to 10,000 vaccine doses per day at competitive prices.
This open approach to the innovation process would probably be seen in most entrepreneurial circles as something of a gamble. Or maybe even as an own goal. But Seyed Mansouri disagrees.
“If I don’t tell people what my idea is, I’ll never hear their response and discover that we're a match. I don’t believe in keeping ideas to yourself. It stops innovation and the process,” he says and adds:
“You have to be like an electron interacting with your surroundings all the time if you want to get things done.” And this is precisely what Mansouri wants.
Constantly on the look-out
In addition to his full-time job as Associate Professor at DTU Chemical Engineering, Seyed Mansouri is involved in a wide range of innovation projects.
For example, he has helped a Mexican exchange student develop and launch a coating that can extend the shelf life of fruits. He has worked with capacity build-up in Sri Lanka aimed at educating the population in waste management. He has entered into industrial collaborations with international companies such as Henkel in Germany on a digitalization journey or Zapata Computing in Boston to develop algorithms to quantum computing. And he has together with a Professor from Copenhagen University developed a new UV technology that can significantly reduce hospitals’ carbon emissions from anaesthetic gases.
In his own words, Seyed Mansouri’s brain “never stands still”. He has an ability to connect systems and people so that opportunities arise, and he is constantly on the look-out for the missing pieces that can realize his own or others’ ideas.
“For me, innovation is about linking up different ways of thinking so that others bring something new to the table. It can help me mature and realize an idea,” he explains.
This often means that Mansouri enters into collaborations with people who have a business mindset and can build a bridge between the academic world and the business world. In addition, he likes to get help from talented students who have the necessary time to mature the ideas. In return, the students receive support, guidance, and sparring from Mansouri.
“They get something out of it, and I get something out of it,” he concludes, stressing that ownership and idea are thus also shared between them. The most important thing for Mansouri is not who gets the final credit, but that someone gets the credit, because it means that an idea has become reality.
This open approach to innovation has meant that Mansouri has a network that is bigger than most and a highly impressive portfolio of collaborations. But there is also a downside.
“Sometimes human relations don’t work. This way of living has meant that I’ve faced hundreds of challenges, and I’ve failed an incredible number of times,” he admits.