Everybody Likes a Good Crash’: The Awards Ceremony Where Something Always Goes Wrong
Honoring ‘disruptive innovators’ means lots of disruptions; kamikaze drones.
By Brenda Cronin
May 3, 2019 11:17 a.m. ET
A ceremony in Manhattan today will honor 25 people and groups for feats of disruptive innovation. It’s anyone’s guess what might disrupt the event itself, but regulars are sure something will.
Since the first show in 2010, the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards have never gone off without a memorable hitch. A kamikaze drone, an audience member crawling around a robot onstage, an obscenity-laced interchange—“I never know what’s going to happen,” says Craig Hatkoff, the New York entrepreneur who helped create the prizes.
The drone debacle happened in 2012, when winners included developers of a tiny aircraft called the Nano Hummingbird. A blooper reel showed their prototype breaking apart or crashing. The crowd laughed, then applauded when the winners brought onstage a bird-size drone that soared toward the ceiling.
Then it dived and slammed into the auditorium wall, barely missing several people.
“It looked like a little hummingbird; how bad could it be?” Mr. Hatkoff thought beforehand. Afterward, “all I could think was: We better find a new venue, because they’re not letting us in next year.” (He found another because the old one wasn’t big enough.)
“These things happen with prototypes,” says Matt Keennon, who demonstrated the drone. “Everybody likes a good crash, so it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Mr. Hatkoff was captivated by the “disruptive innovation” theory Clayton Christensen posited in his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Creative thinkers unafraid to depart from routine, the theory goes, can find unexpected ways to improve the world. They also find unexpected ways to shake up ceremonies.
Mr. Hatkoff and Prof. Christensen helped found the celebration of disrupters. Winners have ranged from Keith Richards (open G guitar tuning) to chef Dominque Ansel (the Cronut).
Among the first honorees, in 2010, was Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. He was working on Square, which processes payments through card readers plugged into mobile devices. Onstage, he gave a “special preview” of the product for iPhones a few days before its U.S. launch.
Mr. Hatkoff handed a credit card to Mr. Dorsey, who swiped it through a Square reader. Nothing.
He swiped again. Nothing. “I have another card,” Mr. Hatkoff said, digging into his wallet as the audience laughed uncomfortably. It worked. But, says Mr. Hatkoff, “I never got my 10 bucks back from Jack.”
Mr. Dorsey, Square’s CEO, didn’t respond to requests for comment sent through the company.
The next year, an unscheduled disrupter was Eric Steven Raymond, a 2010 honoree for his advocacy of the open-source movement. Among the winners were the backers of a four-legged robot with a tarantula’s gait.
Mr. Raymond left the audience, came to the front of the auditorium and started “crawling around—like, sliding under the robot, looking under the hood,” Mr. Hatkoff says. “He was just so taken with it.”
Mr. Hatkoff waited out the moment. “I don’t remember that, but I believe it happened,” Mr. Raymond says. “It sounds like something I would do.”
Attendees might have had difficulty pinpointing that ceremony’s conclusion, because the fire alarm went off and they evacuated.
Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, an Alphabet Inc. unit, says “it would be more weird if something like that didn’t happen.”
The 2013 ceremony honored Elise Andrew, who as a college student ran two Facebook pages popular with young people: “Science Is Awesome,” which drew hundreds of thousands of users, and “I F—ing Love Science,” which attracted millions.
The announcer stumbled over the name: “Congratulations! So, if it’s, you know, ‘I Love F—ing’; ‘I F—ing.’ What is it?”
Ms. Andrew replied with the correct name.
“Better that you say it this time," the moderator said. “What’s the next thing?” she said. “I F—ing Love Colonoscopies? I F—ing Love Doing My Taxes?”
“There already is,” Ms. Andrew said, then rattled off other page names that included the word.
Unplanned disruptions reflect the bent for experimentation, says Adi Ignatius, the Harvard Business Review’s editor in chief and a presenter at the ceremonies.
When Mr. Hatkoff held a special awards ceremony in Japan in 2017, the gremlins followed. Wanting to foster ties between Hiroshima’s Ground Zero and Manhattan’s, he envisioned growing saplings from survivor trees at both sites. For the ceremony’s theme, he chose “Seed the Change,” a variant on “Be the Change,” a mantra attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
Arun Gandhi, a grandson of the peace activist, pointed out that his grandfather likely never uttered the words. “Actually,” Mr. Gandhi says, “the phrase was coined by me in the 1980s.”
When Mr. Hatkoff arrived at a subsequent ceremony he arranged in New York, he found the theme had been mistranslated, posted around the event as “Seed the Peace.”
Disrupter-award winners receive a hammer with a scarlet head, inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow, credited with observing that if all a person has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. One year, a recipient received simply a handle, as the hammer head fell off onstage, crashing down on the announcer’s foot.
Last year, the organizers intended to present a “promissory” award—represented by a hammer in a fishbowl, from which it would be freed once the honoree fulfilled a promise.
“The fishbowl unfortunately broke during the tech check,” Mr. Hatkoff told the audience and showed a photograph of the hammer in the bowl before it had shattered.
Friday’s recipients will include Sir Ronald Cohen, who promotes investing for social good, and Tanitoluwa Adewumi, an 8-year-old chess prodigy and Nigerian refugee.
Mr. Hatkoff doesn’t expect things to go smoothly. Snafus, he says, are “part of the authenticity.”
Write to Brenda Cronin at email@example.com