Eccentric's Corner: Father of Invention

James Jorasch is patented proof that creativity isn't only for artistic geniuses.

By Marina Krakovsky, published on November 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

James Jorasch

PROFESSION: Parallel entrepreneur and angel investor

CLAIM TO FAME: Elbow-grease approach to creativity

As head of inventing at Walker Digital, James Jorasch oversaw hundreds of inventions, most famously Priceline, the dot-com survivor that uses a reverse auction to sell pig-in-a-poke hotel rooms and airline bargains. HealthPrize, one of several start-ups he's currently funding, features a novel pill dispenser and casino-like behavioral incentives to get people to take their daily meds. And those are just his day jobs: a master at chess, improv, and public speaking—among other pursuits—Jorasch believes innovation comes not just from novelty but from good old-fashioned effort.

If people can be systematic about creativity, why do so many have a sense of mystery and fear about it?

Creativity has been put up on such a pedestal. When the media says, "This person is creative," it's almost always paired with the word "genius," and that turns off a lot of people because they say, "I'm not a Mozart." Unfortunately, creativity is also drained by schools, which teach kids that there is one answer. So creativity becomes something that happens in art class. People associate it with the arts and being for the anointed few struck by lightning. In reality, it's much less exciting. It's something everyone can do—and, like everything else, it takes practice.

How do you practice being creative?

You get engaged in a creative endeavor every day. Does it mean you paint every day? No, there's creativity in everything. If you're a chess player, play with different opening moves. If you're cooking, vary recipes; add an ingredient. Creativity is not creating a masterpiece—it's creating something new. Develop a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that's just horrible! Often someone comes up with an idea that everyone laughs at but turns out to have a nugget that, when somebody else hears it and gives it a twist, becomes a good idea.

So there's a social component to getting good ideas?

I see it all the time. I just met with four mathematicians from different backgrounds talking about a single math problem from their own perspectives. Each came out of it looking at the world a little differently.

How do you step outside your own little circle to tap into that diversity?

With the Internet it's become so much easier than in the past. If you're in a major city, you go to meetup.com, which is a site for small-group get-togethers, whether it be kayakers or people who bake cakes. If you've never done, say, French cooking, contact one of these groups and ask some questions. Push yourself to do things you've never done before, reach out to people you've never talked to before, and ask a lot of questions.

Is the lesson to combine ideas?

A lot of it is talking to people and seeing what they complain about. Once you understand people's emotions, you understand how to design products. The iPhone is a great example: Steve Jobs figured out that a person wants their 4-year-old daughter as the background photo but doesn't want to open a manual to figure out how to do it. With HealthPrize, we were looking into why people don't take their drugs. You talk to doctors, pharmacists, and people who take the pills, and you discover that they just forget or that taking a drug makes people feel old. Can you change taking blood pressure medication into something to be excited about? That naturally solves the problem of forgetting.

Tell me about Priceline's genesis.

The team that came up with it (at Walker Digital) would routinely meet for five straight hours and come up with 50 ideas. We'd also read and fill up our brains. We had hundreds of brainstorming sessions, then we'd spend time sifting through those by looking at their commercial potential—which ones were patentable, which ones took a lot of capital to execute.

Now that you're the one investing in others' ideas, how do you decide whether an idea is worth pursuing?

The idea and the people are two factors. Another is having a clear and compelling story, and being able to communicate the idea in 30 seconds, which is important for raising money and hiring employees. Also, what space are you trying to get into? I see pitches all the time for mobile applications or Internet advertising businesses. There are 50 groups in New York working on Internet advertising right now—but how many people are looking at construction materials? You don't have dozens of teams killing themselves to create something new in gravel. I like investments in companies that are not competing with 50 other highly motivated, intelligent people.

You've said you're not any smarter than the average person; I find that hard to believe.

We're all innately creative; I'm not bringing anything magical to it. Ninety percent of inventing is putting in the hours and just trying. You don't need to make a big leap—you need to take a thousand small steps.

Your vision of creativity calls for both solitary and social activity. Are you more introvert or extravert?

When I was younger I was more introverted; now I'm more extraverted. But those are difficult labels. There are times when I just want to curl up with a book and disappear and times when having 15 people over for an event about quantum mechanics would be more fun. I started an improv team to become less introverted and not worry about being an idiot. You have to be comfortable doing something stupid and not worry about failure.

You feel strongly about idea exchange.

I'm interested in dramatically increasing the amount of idea exchange in the city of New York. It gets at what is creative. A lot of people would say there's theater, the arts, and publishing. But where's the creativity in physics, in public speaking, in mathematics, or in business? I'm playing with the formula for generating the most ideas. Do you bring 100 mathematicians together, or four physicists, five mathematicians, and five construction workers? And what kind of personalities: Do you weed out negative people, or do you need people to say the emperor has no clothes?