A strong innovation component is crucial to an invention’s value

Invention, at its core, is a technology-based product addressing a problem. Innovation is building the systems and scale to commercialize an invention.

—Joshua Schuler, former executive director, Lemelson-MIT Program

How do you measure invention success?

Obvious indicators are that people are buying your product and as the inventor you are now making lots of money from your invention; you are able to retire as a wealthy person; you travel the world, pay off your house and student loans, etc. But other than generating revenue, there are more subtle ways to measure success—in the context of what you have to do to make your invention succeed. Some examples:

  • It has been commercialized—that is, manufactured and being sold in the marketplace.
  • One or more companies may have been created to manufacture, distribute and sell the new product, with the additional benefit of job creation.
  • The product may have been “bundled” or integrated into a more complete product or service with potential “spin-off” opportunities.
  • It has “value creation,” referred to by Christopher Hawker in his February 2014 Entrepreneur blog article as having “higher-value density” in the sense that winning products deliver more bang for the buck.
  • It addresses a gap in the market and offers a better solution to solving a customer problem and, as a result, the marketplace of target customers now recognizes this and accepts your new product as better than anything else.

Know the differences

When attempting to measure invention success, a key factor or invention attribute is the extent of innovation—because an invention will not generally be successful without it.

Tom Grady, business consultant and regular contributor to PBS MediaShift Idea Lab and the Huffington Post, offers the following definitions in his 2012 blog entitled “The Difference Between Invention and Innovation.”

Invention can be defined as the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time. On the other hand, Grady (correctly) says that innovation occurs if someone improves on or makes a significant contribution to an existing product, process or service.

He cites the microprocessor as an example. Someone invented it, but by itself it was nothing more than another piece on the circuit board. It’s what was done with that piece—the hundreds of thousands of products, processes and services that evolved from the invention of the microprocessor—that required innovation.

Joshua Schuler, former executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, was quoted several years ago as saying that “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 the shelf. But there are no innovations without an underlying invention!” The two must be linked for success.

Innovation realities

In his July/August 2011 blog at iveybusinessjournal.com, Roger More, retired professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada, discussed the management realities of innovation. He made these observations about building innovation into an invented product:

  • Individual product and services innovations seldom add any value in isolation. They must be integrated and physically “bundled” with a wide range of other physical and process technologies to be applied.
  • A huge range of internal and external factors affect the success and failure of any innovation. Innovations can have interesting and positive characteristics in and of themselves, but in a real competitive situation there are hundreds, if not thousands, of internal and external factors—many outside the control of the invention development team—that will affect the success or failure of an innovation.
  • What this means is that any innovation, if it is to be successful, must have huge advantages and offer competitive differentiation against the existing and competing “bundled” customer solutions in existence.

He went on to add:

  • At the real level of market competition (where innovations ultimately have to make their impact) and in specific product/service/market segments, every competitive and market situation is largely unique. There are no simple or general solutions. A particular innovation might be successful in one market, in one segment, in one geography, and fail miserably in another.
  • Every competitive strategy, marketing strategy and innovation has the possibility of failure. At best, innovation is partly a “crapshoot” with no way to predict success.

More also offers an interesting perspective regarding the best metric for assessing invention success. He says in his blog that “the only thing that matters is whether an innovation creates wealth and the only metric for determining that wealth is net cash flow.

“If an innovation is pumping real positive net cash flow over time, all of the other assorted financial metrics will be just fine! If it is losing cash flow, then the other metrics don’t matter.”

Yes, generating revenue is a key indicator of success. On the other hand, in order for an invention to be successful, it must have innovation embedded in its development, and its target customers need to recognize this. Without some form of innovation, an invention is unlikely to be very successful.