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Is the age of invention over?

Invention vs innovation

At the dawn of the last century, people who were heralded as world-changers were a different breed. Edison, Franklin (and let’s also put Tesla here, though his contributions weren’t recognized at the time), Turing, Neumann, and a lot of other great people. Things are different now. The people we idolize today are the innovators – Jobs, Musk, Page&Brin – the Great Communicators who can drive products to the market, and carve out a viable market strategy despite the strong competition, or create entirely new markets.

Hype of hypes

Innovation as a profession is a great thing, and the best innovators are equally great and valuable people. Also, comparatively, innovation-ship is the new thing. But as with all new things, it feels that the pendulum is being swung to its opposite extreme. Hype is all about innovation now, so everyone just wants to innovate, and most of the subsidies incentivise innovations instead of inventions.

Fleets of companies jump on every ounce of invention and try to innovate the hell out of it, swarming around every single innovation like chatbots, AI, wearables, VR, blockchain or like Web2.0 was a few years ago.

The question is not why innovation is so sexy, but when did we leave invention behind?

It seems that invention nowadays only happens within the confines of large companies or within the ivory towers of academia – and even the latter is failing as grants incentivise small, certain steps instead of large leaps, always somewhat disconnected from the outside world, but that’s a whole different story.

Risk avoidance

One of the culprits is likely our patent system, stuck in the last century, abused by basically everyone who’s into patenting. They were a useful instrument when your invention was the light bulb – but when it’s an algorithm to generate molecules? I think we’d all profit from some new, powerful device re-democratising inventions because now it’s just best to keep all your inventions secret.

There must be another reason why many start-ups choose to avoid invention. Could this be because it feels so risky? Spending a lot of money on research, with possibly zero results. It is not a coincidence that this mirrors the thinking of most investors.

Launching a start-up and finding a new market is inherently risky – why should we pile more risk upon that? Of course, inventing – expanding the horizon of what can be done – does carry risks. However, if you think of it, this is exactly what people enrolled in PhD programmes do: they invent something new almost by definition.

Turns out that deep down, these risks are very similar to those already being borne by start-ups. What’s more, their trajectories are similar too. Inventions may fail spectacularly, though that’s quite unlikely. There are also some rare cases of fast success. Most inventions though require a large amount of toiling and iterative refinement to succeed – just as getting a product to market does. In the last decade, however, pretty good innovation processes and measures were built that could streamline the making of inventions.

Invention + innovation

Invention and innovation risks are like antiphase waves – when added, they tend to cancel out rather than amplify each other. The ability and the procedures to invent amplify the power of any existing basic idea, enabling the company to expand and find better markets for the product, not having to rely on their single shot anymore. At the same time, business and customer development being done at start-ups help keep the invention process focused and much more agile as it would be at established firms or in academia.

So let’s embrace invention again! Startups should be inventors as much as innovators – because the long-term value of a company lies within its inventiveness as much as in its innovative capacity. That’s what we strive for at Turbine.

Kristof Z. Szalay260
Kristóf Szalay
is Chief Technology Officer at Turbine. He will be speaking at the 4th Global Precision Medicine & Biomarkers Leaders Summit: Europe.

See who else is speaking. Download the agenda

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