Should Startups Invent or Innovate


Strategic Project Management

Innovation and invention are sometimes confused or used interchangeably, mostly due to not understanding what the differences are. You don’t need to know the definition of each to succeed. But understanding them will help you focus on the right things to improving your product or processes towards goodness. Let’s start off with a quick definition of what they are. invention is the process of creating a new product or process. It is radically different from anything comparable. And innovation is application of an invention or product in a unique way to help solve a realized problem. Innovation requires deep understanding of the problem to provide a better, cheaper, timely or a customized solution. One is not less than the other, innovation can be as challenging as inventing. Just think of a classic inventors-Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and innovators – Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, to appreciate this. Yet there are many differences that can make one more important than the other for your startup.

Invention and innovation are complementary

The differences between the two arise because invention and innovation are not competitive but complimentary to each other. An invention inevitably spawns a myriad of innovations. Think of what good old Edison’s invention of the bulb. Several innovations later we had the incandescent bulb, the halogen lamp, krypton bulb and fluorescent lamp etc. Innovations can lead to more inventions. See what happened with the invention of the solid state light bulb or LED. The solid State diode was invented several years ago. Several decades later it crossed the path of the light bulb innovation chain and a new invention was born. By the nature of this sequential and the one-to-many relationship of inventions to innovations, there will be many more innovations than inventions.

There are other differences worth noting. An invention is likely to have longer commercialization cycle, to be more risky, may require more upfront capital but the rewards are that it would give you a huge competitive advantage and create a ‘blue ocean’ market. Innovations generally operate in known market conditions. Usually, this involves carving out a niche in an existing large pool of customers. The need for the solution is understood and customer realizes the value story quicker and adoption is likely to be quicker.

Startups can do with without invention but not without innovation

Not every startup needs to be an invention but without innovation they will not succeed. Even an invention can take some help from innovation. Often an invention fails commercially because the inventor was not innovative. Take the case of memory foam. Invented by NASA, but nothing came out of it till the patent was opened up for commercialization. A small European startup  ‘temperpedic’  innovated on the manufacturing and process to produce it economically. Thus ‘temperpedic’ mattress was born and this lead to a plethora of other innovations including memory foam pet beds. You may not be an inventor but don’t let go of you innovative spirit. For all startups continuous innovation is necessary to succeed.


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