This week Wall Street Journal columnist Dennis Berman posed an interesting question: “Is Peanut Butter Pop-Tart an ‘Innovation’?” In the article, Berman described the skyrocketing use – and likely overuse — of the word “innovation” by many American companies and asks: is this really innovation? When a food company introduces a new product, or a restaurant offers a new burger, is it innovation? Or are these simply the actions that a company needs to do on a day-to-day basis to stay competitive?
The article prompted me to think about how the word “innovation” can sometimes be confused with “invention.” Roget’s Thesaurus lists the two terms as synonyms of each other, and many dictionaries give the words nearly-identical definitions. However, there are subtle differences between the two terms.
From a purely intellectual property standpoint, an invention is any new method, idea, or product. Some (but not all) inventions meet the higher bar of being patent-worthy if they are also useful and non-obvious. However, just because an invention exists, and even if it’s patent-worthy, it may have little or no market potential. The USPTO’s Official Gazette is filled with patents covering inventions that never made any money for their inventors. In some cases it was because the invention failed to address a need. In other cases it may have simply been a lack of resources, skill, or experience needed to bring the invention to market.
On the other hand, innovations require something more. An innovation typically involves an invention, but more importantly it requires bringing the invention to bear on a market need. The “invention” part of innovation often may be seem to be fairly trivial, and it might not even be a very new invention.(Case in point: substituting peanut butter for the jelly filling in a Pop-Tart.) However, the ability to apply an invention in a unique way to a product or service that consumers want is the heart of innovation.
Consider the microprocessor. Someone invented the microprocessor. But by itself, the microprocessor 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.
Inventions and patents can be important tools to a successful business. An innovator has a keen ability recognize which inventions consumers will want, and can leverage patents and other resources to bring the invention to market.