Innovation has garnered all the attention in business lately. It seems like being called an innovator is the epitome of personal success. What happened to invention though? Shouldn’t an inventor be as prestigious as an innovator? This has led me to explore the difference between innovation and invention, and why the difference between the two matters.
Invention is the act of creating something new that could potentially be useful. Another way of defining it is a solution looking for a problem to solve. Inventing something is proving that it is technologically possible to engineer such a solution – that it is possible to create a product, service or system in this new form. However, the solution has yet to provide value to anyone because no one has used it to solve a problem.
Innovation, on the other hand, is new value in new ways. Relating it to invention, innovation is an invention that is providing value to someone. An innovation is an invention that has found a valuable problem to solve. Both invention and innovation are applied practices. It is counterintuitive to say that an idea is an invention or an innovation, as ideas are simply manifestations of the mind.
An invention is a solution looking for a problem to solve. An innovation is a solution that has found a problem to solve.
To illustrate the distinction and the importance of it, let’s look at several examples of inventions and innovations. We’ll start with the iconic Apple. In 1993, Apple released the Newton, its first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Five years later, the Newton was discontinued. Apple failed. They had invented a new series of PDAs, but it didn’t fare well in the market. Of course, we all know what happened in 2007. For those of you living under a rock, the first generation iPhone was released. It went on to sell more than 1.2 billion units. Apple has clearly found a set of problems it could solve with a full touchscreen device.
Another prominent example is Google Glass. Released to the public in 2013, Google’s first attempt at wearable devices was met with a thud (well, almost). It was priced quite higher than what the general public was willing to pay and quickly lost ground to Snapchat’s Spectacles (which were priced at just $130 compared to Google Glass’s $1,500). Google’s version was obviously much more technologically advanced and capable than Snapchat’s. However, Google didn’t find a market for its invention. It wasn’t all dark and gloomy for the folks at Google. Google Glass has found a home in industrial applications where there seems to be demand for such technological capabilities. Google Glass found a market with a set of problems that it can solve. As such, it has become an innovation in this context. What we can learn from this example is that inventions could become innovations, so long as they find a market/ problem to solve.
Google Glass and Apple’s Newton-turned-iPhone can teach us a lot about inventions and innovations. They also provide a clear reason for the distinction and its importance. Inventions are important. Without a market that values the invention, however, it won’t yield returns for the inventor. This is why patents are a loose leading indicator of a company’s innovative capabilities. Patents contain within them ample amounts of potential value. They are inventions awaiting to be aligned with a set of problems that matter.