Invention, Innovation ...wait, there's a difference?

Posted by Corina Sedillo on Nov 14, 2017 2:52:04 PM

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Yes. Disentangling invention from innovation and considering the patentability of an idea, can be as tedious as discerning teal from cyan. For some, it's not necessary to unravel these nuances for a business opportunity. Yet for others—from investors to entrepreneurs working to advance technology—it is the difference between investing in an idea that has promise yet sits on the shelf, or an idea that is adaptive and generates revenue.

As you are shaping your idea, it is critical to take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • Are you an inventor or innovator?
  • Is your inventive solution patentable?
  • Does it have an industry application?

What forms of intellectual property coverage are needed to protect your solution, brand, and know-how? In other words, what is your idea’s "patent-ial"? Patential is the potential of your idea to become a patented innovation or invention.

These questions are not exclusive to inventors and innovators. Many of the people involved in bringing new ideas to market should be asking these questions.

When you discern invention from innovation, then you can begin your endeavor with patentability. The goal of this article is to clarify the initial considerations that need to be made before you even start the patent process. This will help you to navigate through some of the tough issues that inventors and innovators face.

  • Part 1 of this series will define the boundaries of invention and innovation. This blog also introduces a fascinating link between the two.
  • Part 2 of this series will give perspective on how patentability relates to invention and the value of due diligence before investing in a patent application.


Invention and Innovation... there IS a difference!

Innovation rose in popularity nearly 50 years ago.

The meaning of innovation has become diluted to the point that it is now a branded generality, synonymous with invention. The use of the two words in literature has not been the same since they became equal in 1974 (see chart below). With the interchangeable use of “innovation” and “invention”, technology innovation is beginning to lose its impact.

Invention and Innovation Term use Freqency

Link to Interactive Google Ngram Graph

A Few Definitions...

Before we dive deeper, below is a simple definition of each term:

An invention is a novel idea that has never been conceived. An invention is going from nothing to something, from 0 to 1, from wax candles to Edison’s light bulb.

An innovation is an improvement upon an invention, or the application of a combination of inventions. It is a distinct iteration of something that already exists, from a simple light bulb to an array of complex light emitting devices. Innovation can also include the reassembly of different versions of inventions or innovations to form a new application.

Just because innovation and invention are distinct and typically separate, it doesn't mean that they can't go together. Like peanut butter and jelly, they are both enjoyable independently, but also delightful in combination. Use the following three examples to determine how an idea can encompass innovation, invention, or both.


Examples to Clarify

Innovation WITH Invention: Can Openers  

Yes, we are going to talk about can openers! These mechanically simple tools were not invented until 1855, about 45 years after tin-canned food preservation was first patented in 1810. In the early days of canned food preservation, a common method for accessing the food inside was to use a hammer and chisel. While these archaic methods certainly did the job, it was still a bottleneck in preparing food.

In this instance, the innovation required an invention and the two were realized simultaneously. It followed the classical invention model:

"There must be a better way to do this", where the necessity led to insight.

At that point, an invention was born. What would we do without the can opener today? Both canning and the can opener have revolutionized food prep and convenience. Since canned food was a relatively new thing, it took several iterations to arrive at the generation of the can openers we use today. 

INVENTION without Innovation: Pay by Touch

The process of obtaining fingerprints and assigning information to them has been happening for over a hundred years. It began when law enforcement discovered that the fingerprint is unique for each individual. This was further used to identify persons in criminal cases based on their distinct fingerprint patterns. Since then and after many uses of this discovery, an idea blossomed into the first ever “Pay by Touch” machine developed by John Rogers in 2002. Interestingly, the idea was set to take off, except the many indiscretions of John Rogers left his key investors searching for safer waters.


INNOVATION without Invention: X-Rays

X-rays are waves of electromagnetic radiation, much like visible light waves, only they have much shorter wavelengths. This allows the x-ray to "squeeze through" any material through which visible light is too big to pass. X-rays were serendipitously discovered while Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was studying the cathode ray tube in 1896 (remember tube-based TVs?). In an effort to darken his lab, Röntgen placed a black cardboard cover over the cathode-ray tube and noticed faint light on a screen a few meters away. Some radiation was getting through the cover, but he didn't know what it was. Like a true scientist, his curiosity got the best of him and he occupied himself with this strange behavior. He varied the distance of the screen. He varied the types of material he placed between the tube and the screen, all in an effort to learn more about this odd behavior. During his experiments, he unwittingly placed his hand between the tube and screen and noticed a curious shadow. What follows is marked in history as the very first X-ray as we know it today.


The first X-ray, taken in 1895, was of Wilhelm Röntgen's
wife's left hand and her enormous ring! 


Immediately, the medical field recognized the utility of this new discovery and people began to improve the technology. Early diagnostic X-rays required the patient to sit impossibly still for about an hour while being exposed to dangerous levels of damaging radiation. Needless to say, improvements needed to be made.

It took the spirit of inquiry and the perfect placement of a hand in front of a cathode ray tube to produce this scientific breakthrough. This discovery and the diagnostic uses of X-rays are a prime example of the innovative concepts applied to already invented technologies.

Discover Your Idea's "Patent-ial"

Now that you can identify whether you are an inventor or an innovator, what's next? How will your decision affect your portfolio, licensing decisions, or competitive advantage?

Whether your idea is an invention or an innovation, you will have to navigate the intellectual property processes to protect it. Once you decide to convert your idea into an asset, either as a product or licensing opportunity, you can now investigate the patentability of your idea.

In Part 2, we will take you through the benefits of determining patentability, via due diligence, and the pitfalls of discounting this stage of the process. You'll see how a little homework on the front-end can save your investment over the long haul.

Can't wait for it? Here's the bottom line: doing just a Google Patent Search ensures your investment is open to compromise. We will show the value you should expect from your patentability research and how to determine if obtaining a patent aligns with your business objectives.

Protect your idea with a solid, actionable strategy—partner with us to jump start the  process.


Topics: Innovation Strategy, Due Diligence, IP 101

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