The rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s heralded an age of innovation, enabling us to make nearly every kind of interaction better, cheaper and faster.
Investors have been rewarded for funding big, game-changing ideas during this era. Yet many of these innovations have been relatively modest concepts. Being first has been key: Test your idea, fail early and pivot until you have arrived at something that captures the popular imagination.
That's no longer the case. With so much reward for low-risk ventures, fewer entities are drawn to risky investments into the unknown. But what are the subsets of creativity, and how much risk is involved in each today? We asked some of the leading idea people in business for their thoughts, to help us identify and define the various ways new products, technologies and commodities come into being.
Science is the riskiest investment. The federal government has long been a consistent source of funding for scientific research, but now Congress is scaling back. Corporations can't afford to make investments that may take years, if not decades, to pay off. So science funding has become the responsibility of nonprofits, universities and a handful of extremely rich companies.
"Science, invention and innovation are related but distinctly different things. Science requires increasingly bigger budgets. An investment in science may produce an invention. But if it doesn't solve a problem, it won't become an innovation that changes the world. Inventions created with direct user insights have a better chance of becoming marketable innovations."
--Barry Jaruzelski, co-author of the Booz & Co. Global Innovation 1000 Study, which tracks the public companies with the highest R&D spending
Bell Labs was possible at a particular moment in time. They had a monopoly on the telephone business, which allowed the company to fund this lab to create things that sometimes took many, many years. Companies can't afford to do that anymore. The competition to get ideas to market is too fierce. Google can afford to do it. And they have done some projects. Universities and governments do it. The risk level is too high for public companies.
--Jon Gertner, author, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Invention is only slightly less risky than science. Inventions can sit on shelves for years until someone figures out how to use them to solve a problem in a way that consumers will buy. While there are more corporations that spend money on invention than invest in science, it is carefully controlled spending.
The hallmark of invention is a new creation, a radical departure that creates a new platform that enables new things that were previously not possible.
--Randy Komisar, partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byersn
Today, a lone inventor has a hard time of it. Innovation is a few steps closer to the market, to the prospect of making money on an idea. Inventors need more support for their work because it is farther away from commercialization.
Invention, at its core, is a technology-based product addressing a problem. Innovation is building the systems and scale to commercialize an invention. If you have an invention that isn't scalable, it sits on a shelf. But there are no innovations without an underlying invention. We fight the stereotype of the scientist/inventor as a crazy guy in a lab coat. Our mission is to hold up inventors as role models.
--Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a nonprofit within MIT's School of Engineering that encourages young people to pursue careers through invention
For the last 30 years, innovators have been more richly rewarded than inventors. Invention has been neglected. We are working to correct that balance by rewarding inventors to solve problems. Our investors have patience.
--Geoff Deane, vice president and general manager of Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures Lab, which purchases inventions and licenses the patents
Innovation is the game of choice for those who want to see a quick return on their investment. Tweaking an invention to produce yet another popular product can be done so quickly that we are now in an innovation loop that no longer relies on completely new inventions to produce ever more wealth for investors. It's a spinning wheel that no longer pauses.
Invention is the sand, and innovation is just moving that sand around. It is so easy to create and build new things now that there is no incentive to invent.
If your objective is to make money, you are going to innovate, not invent. --Tom Grasty, business consultant and regular contributor to PBS MediaShift Idea Lab and The Huffington Post
Innovators fail fast, fail cheap and change directions constantly as they look for something that attracts an audience. The closer to invention you are, the greater the risk it will never make it to market and be worth money. The farther down the road you are toward the product, the lower the financial risk. --Geoff Deane
Innovation is happening faster because there are more competitors in our now-global market, more change is happening in more places, and everyone has access to each other's innovations through the internet. Big data creates more opportunity for innovation by increasing our understanding of what consumers/users want. --Barry Jaruzelski
Innovation taps into the zeitgeist, which is getting easier and easier to do with the data created by social media and online commerce, which enables more and more innovation. There is nothing inventive about many of the products created by these companies with huge IPO valuations. --Tom Grasty
The Maker Movement
The glamour of innovation so outshines invention these days that inventor support groups have sprung up to champion these maligned but essential players. The Maker Movement--young inventors using inexpensive technology to make prototypes without the benefit of outside funding or the blessing of established authorities--is reinvigorating the reputation of invention.
The Maker Movement is all about invention. The open-source environment encourages invention. Students come to MIT with maker portfolios. They can create prototypes of their ideas. They can do the work without much money or anyone's approval. You can feel their sense of passion for problem solving. These ideas may have always been there, but now they have outlets. I see a generation that is passionate and altruistic.
The Maker Movement--a lot of interesting stuff going on at an elemental level. Mostly 20- to 35-year-olds. It allows people who would otherwise be talking about ideas to demonstrate what is in their heads. It's a rough draft. The more rough drafts, the more likely we will see something inventive.