The Thinking Maker
Michael Cagan of Think and Make It
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘inventor’? Something like a classic mad professor but without the white coat and with greasier hair? Someone who sits around in his bathtub until he suddenly shouts “Eureka!” and a lightbulb shoots out of his head? Someone who spends his time in a windowless shed and never comes out?
Before I met Michael Cagan of Think and Make It [www.thinkandmakeit.com], I can honestly say I hadn’t given inventors much thought, other than feeling thankful for their work when using their products. Cagan is my first “live” inventor, and he isn’t anything like the arch typical mad or even sane professor.
First of all there is his studio, or workshop. It’s not a lab with fizzing/exploding neon-coloured concoctions, but a small, non-descript room upstairs from a car workshop near Son Castello.
Then there is the way he looks; like a benevolent rock star, thin, with long dark hair and a beatific smile. His heritage reads like an atlas. Swedish/German mother, father American, but a mix of five or six other nationalities including Italy.
“My father, who identified the potential of Mallorca early, set up an American military base here. ‘The Brits have Gibraltar, we have Mallorca, ‘ he said.”
Cagan’s fate was thus sealed like the cans he was later to work with: He could only live in Mallorca! An island which doesn’t immediately spring to mind as the ideal place for an inventor, or developer, as he calls himself?
“Oh, no! This is the worst place to be”, he exclaims, but then smiles, seemingly unconcerned.
“Mallorca is far away from what’s practical. Then again, most places are. And after a few years in Austria which was, in developer terms, the right place to be, I realised that beautiful surroundings are more important for my general well-being and therefore better for productivity and for evolving. My job has never been local anyway.”
And after many years of hard work, the autodidact Cagan can pick and choose locations. Nominated by the Nobel Foundation – he came 5th of 3,500 nominees – and with big corporations throwing cash at him (“not exactly! I still have to pitch for funding!“) he can afford to work when he wants to, which is all the time.
Cagan’s patents include inline rollerblades with suspension, a paper rucksack and a portable alarm, but the most famous of his inventions is probably the re-sealable aluminium can. Those ring pulls aren’t sharp anymore like in the olden days, but they can still come off. And once that can is open, that’s it. You have to drink up.
“Well actually, the hybrid that’s on the market now is not my invention, but from the project I begun with the first can patent that was also a full aluminum version. Internal development came up with this option to cover the expectation of bringing in a product to the market.”
“A can that can be closed and opened again has so many benefits,” Cagan explains. “It will reduce the amount of plastic we use to a great degree, for the screw cap so far has been the only benefit plastic bottles have over cans.”
Hmmm. How about glass bottles? I have always preferred bottled beer over canned. It’s more elegant and tastes better. And…doesn’t the aluminium somehow leak into the beer? But a quick search of the all knowing internet tells me that aluminium cans are better than glass. The beer keeps its taste for longer and a new type of coating keeps the aluminium from leaking. Aluminium can also be recycled and re-recycled more or less until eternity, and there are more facilities for aluminium recycling than there are for glass.
Cagan is a fan of aluminium.
“The can is a technological feat! It is only ¼ millimetre thick but can hold 8 bar of pressure. People have an inbuilt respect for metal over plastic – metal will eventually return to sand.”
He shows me his prototypes of can tops, one half metal and half plastic, the other one a nifty screw-motion sealing top made of 100% aluminium.
“Did you know the world produces 300 000 BILLION cans a year? And that’s only the drinks market?”
What?!? No, I didn’t know that. That’s what I call a sizeable market. And when cans start elbowing out plastic in earnest it will probably be much bigger.
How about the can factories though? Won’t a hell of a lot of machines need to be replaced?
Cagan smiles. This is what separates the chaff from the wheat, and he is definitely wheat! For he has found to make re-sealable cans with the same machinery as the old ones.
“So you see, my type of invention is more pragmatic. It’s market oriented and it’s price oriented. I identify a need in the market and understand the two factors involved: The new product must be 1. cheaper, and 2. better. When those two factors are proven, I get funding, and then go all in. Before I start, I have to know that I can finish. Failure is never an option.”
My type of invention is market oriented
But how does the magic happen, how does an inventor go about inventing something? Does he become an engineer or a scientist, and then sort of branch out?
“At school I was never good at anything in particular except maybe arts, and working with my hands in the machine shop. I began working with industrial design, calling myself a product solver. If I needed to learn something, I read a book about that topic. If I didn’t understand it I read it again, and again, until I got it.”
“When something is right, when it’s perfect and working, I can feel it physically. The hairs stand up on my arms. The work gives me a heightened perception – I just know what’s right. I must also be true and honest with myself. I think small lies and dishonesty ruin our psyche and corrupt our work. I seek the highest point of reference in knowledge in everything I do. And then – I know it’s right. But to get there I have put in an immense amount of time – sometimes I only sleep three hours. Of course it gets easier all the time, now that my name is better known within the industry.”
When something is perfect and working, I can feel it physically.
I have a distinct feeling though, that Cagan is a man who doesn’t want life to be ‘easy’. He laughs.
“ I mean, it’s easier to find investors.“
Cagan shows me around his enormous office space in Cami dels Reis, a few minutes’ walk from the station.
And by the way, Olive Valley people: Cagan is looking for people who want to share the space; not necessarily other inventors but people who work alone but want to have “colleagues” at the same time. There’s a kitchen too, plus hundreds and hundreds of square metres of empty space calling out for desks, sofas and ping ping tables. (The latter is what I would have, anyway, if I had that kind of space.)
“I follow the Buddhist principle: Be the change you want to see!” says Cagan, who doesn’t believe in ‘carbon taxing’ and empty talk about ‘the climate.’
“I like to take concrete action. Planting trees is a good action. When my portable alarm goes into production, for example, I will plant one tree for each unit sold.”