What does moldy hay, rat poison, and sick cows have to do with breakthrough results? In this particular case, pretty much everything.

Legend has it, in the mid-1930’s, a farmer showed up to the University of Wisconsin—Madison, in the middle of a blizzard, with a bucket filled with cow’s blood, a few hundred pounds of hay, and a story about his cattle mysteriously dying. There he met the chemist Karl Paul Link, who, intrigued by the question of what was happening to this farmer’s cows, geared his lab for the next few years towards understanding what was happening.

After years of experiments, what Link and his colleagues concluded is that a blood-thinning molecule arises when the fungus causing the mold in the hay the cows were eating was reacting with a compound that was occurring naturally. The disease was named “sweet clover disease” after the widely used sweet clover hay the livestock was eating.

By the mid-1940’s, Link and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin had identified the natural substance that was at the heart of sweet clover disease’s effects called coumarin. Brainstorming to find uses for the newly discovered compound, Link saw it could be used as a poison to ward off unwanted rodents. The lab worked to identify a list of nearly 150 variations of coumarin and discovered number 42 was a uniquely potent variation. By 1948, compound number 42, dubbed warfarin, was being marketed as a rodenticide.

Since the discovery almost 60 years ago, Warfarin has been one of the most widely used treatments for clotting conditions, has been used in treating an incalculable number of people, and the compound has been copied by several major pharmaceutical companies to compete.

Despite its success, a new wave of anticoagulants are showing up on the market. Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pradaxa, Bayer’s Xarelto and Pfizer/ Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Eliquis, have all been gaining notoriety for being a safer, simpler to administer alternative to warfarin.

What’s the lesson here? Breakthroughs come in all shapes and sizes, and might just show up when you least expect it. Like when moldy hay is making your cows sick.

What’s your moldy hay? Where are your cows sick, that if addressed, could lead to your organization’s next breakthrough?

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