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Distinguishing Invention from Innovation

Updated: Dec 13, 2018

...wait, there's a difference? Oh yes, there is.

Should I care? Yes, if you're playing to win.

This is one of the very first decisions to make when evaluating a tech investment that will live in and impact your portfolio for years to come. Disentangling invention from innovation can be as tedious as discerning magenta from fuchsia--those two distinct colors both often casually summed up as "hot pink".

An actual Color Survey showing variation in how people see Fuschia alone. If you're into color perception, check out the results. Caution: it's a fun-loving study.

It's not necessary to unravel these nuances for every-single business opportunity. Yet for many—particularly those teams aiming to compete with novel technologies—it is the difference between investing in an idea that looks promising yet can't compete, or an idea that is adaptive and generates revenue over the life of the product.

In short, it's about gaining or losing:

  • ROI

  • Competitive Advantage

  • Brand Equity

  • Quality Talent.

As you are shaping your next big product idea and investment, it is critical to take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • Do you have an invention, innovation, or both?

  • Has it been vetted for tech, market, AND legal feasibility?

  • How will you protect all assets (tangible + intangible) derived from the investment?

These questions are not exclusive to the technology team. The suite of teams involved in bringing new ideas to market should be asking these questions, including: marketers, strategists, finance / investors, legal, operations, business development, supply chain, service, and executive leadership.

One question that often pops up when evaluating ideas for new product technologies as inventive or innovative is whether the idea is patentable. "Let's patent it!", usually follows, in some form. In order to get to an answer to that question, several other strategic, long-term considerations have to be addressed. It's not a haphazard decision for any company, in any industry, large or small. With discipline and focus, and a little creativity, we can get to the answer that's best for the company, its clients, its people, and the market.

By discerning invention from innovation, you can begin your endeavor with "patentability". This will give you clarification on which forms of intellectual property coverage will be needed to protect your solution, brand, and know-how?

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 the early 1970's (see chart below). With the interchangeable use of “innovation” and “invention”, technology innovation is beginning to lose its impact.

Popularity of INVENTION versus INNOVATION in Literature (1800-2008)

Invention and Innovation Term use Frequency

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 innovation is an improvement upon an invention, or a combination of inventions. It's a version of something that already exists. It's going from a light bulb that gives off yellow light to one that emits red light. 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.

The following (3) examples show how an idea can encompass innovation, invention, or both.

Examples to Clarify


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.

In this instance, the innovation required an invention and the two were realized simultaneously. It followed the classical invention model: and accumulation of "there must be a better way to do this" turned frustration into insight. An invention was born!

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.


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. 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.

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