Struggling to innovate? Take lessons from the criminal underground—or maybe NASA

Dive deep.
Dive deep.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel/Illustration
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Have you ever tried to buy a kilo of cocaine online? It’s not as easy as you’d think. (Thankfully.)

But the fact that you can buy a kilogram of cocaine online—and have it delivered to your home, paid for with virtual currency—speaks to the creative, illegal methods through which transnational organized-crime groups develop novel ways to market and innovate. The legitimate business world could take lessons from them.

Criminal organizations suffer from many of the same challenges lawful corporations do: attracting and recruiting good people to run their businesses, meeting demand through robust supply chains, reducing costs, evaluating strategic partnerships for penetration into new markets, and creating innovative product and service offerings to attract new customers. Transnational organized-crime groups arguably have it tougher—after all, they must solve their operational challenges while remaining undetected by law enforcement. How do you innovate in such a regulated market?

Innovation in criminal groups is driven by scarcity. Money, territory, and influence are always in short supply. Finding the right people to create opportunities—and not steal from the business—can be a challenge. Additionally, the market for illicit material is fragmented and heavily regulated; attracting new customers is difficult. But in times of adversity, creative groups of people seem to figure things out. They persist in the belief that there is another way to solve their problems. Of course, criminals aren’t the only ones in history who have turned to unorthodox solutions.

Apollo 13

Perhaps the most famous example demonstrating the connection between innovation and scarcity is the Apollo 13 moon mission. Fifty-five hours into the mission and over 200,000 miles from earth, an oxygen tank exploded on board the spaceship. With limited life support and reduced power, astronauts John Swigert, Fred Haise, and James Lovell faced the grim reality that they might not return from space. On the ground, NASA engineers, program managers, and scientists began brainstorming methods for reducing carbon dioxide in the spacecraft and determining how to put the vessel on a trajectory back to earth. Oxygen was in short supply, and there wasn’t enough rocket power to stop the ship in mid-flight and reverse course. NASA engineers, through a staggering display of flexible thinking, crafted a homegrown oxygen delivery system. Not done, they then devised a way to fling the spacecraft around the moon, taking advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull while burning the engines to speed Jim Lovell and his crew back home.

The Apollo 13 engineers used what they were given: the physical parts of the spacecraft and years of accumulated scientific knowledge to craft solutions that brought three astronauts safely home. They “exapted” to the situation, using tools and techniques originally conceived for some other purpose to solve the problem before them. Exaptation, a term coined by evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, describes those traits that “enhance fitness but were not built by natural selection for their current role.” That is, a trait is used for a purpose other than the one selected for it by evolution. For example, the earliest feathers existed on dinosaurs, not birds, long before animals were capable of flight. Therefore, feathers must have evolved for some other purpose—some scientists think they were used for warmth or for attracting mates.

Organized criminal organizations do the same as NASA engineers: They view the entire world (or ship) as a resource supply to be used for their purposes. They exapt.


In 2013, while you were enjoying a relaxing Thanksgiving surrounded by friends and family, eating way too much turkey and mashed potatoes, Jesse Korff was figuring out a new way to distill a biological toxin, called abrin, so that he could sell it to terrorists.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even a small dose of abrin is lethal to humans and can cause death within 36 to 72 hours. Abrin is what is known as a “select agent.” Select agents are a subset of biological toxins that the US Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture have determined have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. Similar to ricin, death by abrin usually comes from a severe allergic reaction that causes difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

There is no antidote.

In a message from Thanksgiving 2013, Korff wrote: “When you handle the abrin itself you should were [sic] gloves … each vial contains … about 220mg of abrin enough to kill a 440 pound human … it is as simple as pouring it in a drink or sandwich bun, yes the drink should be somewhat dark because this is about the color of light rum or whiskey, and I suggest either a coke or a shot of rum or whiskey actually alcohol would probably be the best because you know they will drink all of it and they will start to feel flu like symptoms in 48 hours then it will progressively get worse until they die by the forth [sic] day.”

Korff, a 19 year-old from Glades County, Florida, used something called “Darknet” to sell his product to the highest bidder. Darknet is a vast underground of drug traffickers, weapons dealers, and child pornographers. It’s where you would go to buy a kilo of cocaine online. Or abrin.

Darknet is made possible by a technology called Tor. Tor, an acronym for “The Onion Router,” is freely distributed by the nonprofit Tor Project. It provides an anonymous communications platform to its users. It was originally conceived and funded as a project of the US Naval Research Laboratory. Tor serves a noble purpose. Imagine you have contracted a disease and you want to anonymously ask questions online about your condition: Tor lets you do that. Or perhaps you reside in a country that censors websites like YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Tor can enable access to those sites. It really is a wonderful tool.

But, Korff, and others like him, exapted Tor for criminal purpose. They created a novel, new use for it. In Korff’s case, he used it to sell a biological weapon.

Innovation is less complex than we think. To solve problems, we need to be still, look at the world around us, and creatively think through what already exists. Can we reuse a technology created for one purpose to solve our own innovation challenges? Can we exapt solutions by repurposing processes built for one thing and apply them to another? If the success of global criminal enterprise is any guide, I’d posit the answer is yes.