Innovation in Engineering--What it is, and what it isn't :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Len Polizzotto, Vice President, Draper Laboratory

Awarding the 2012 Draper Prize: James Shields, Draper president; Irwin Jacobs, chairman of the NAE Council; prize recipients Martin Schadt, George H. Heilmeier, and Wolfgang Helfrich; Sarah Brody Webb, accepting on behalf of her late father, T. Peter Brody; and Charles Vest, NAE president. Photo by Event Digital Photography, courtesy of Draper Laboratory

When engineers discuss innovation, they sometimes miss the point entirely. Here’s the bottom line: If an invention does not meet a need or is otherwise unappealing, it is not innovative.

Far too often, the terms “innovation,” “invention,” and “creativity” are used as though they are synonymous. They’re not. An invention is creative if it’s original and imaginative, but if customers can’t or don’t want to use it, it’s not innovative.

Here’s an example of something that’s creative, but not innovative. An engineer can develop a CD player for your shoe, but how useful would that be? Would anyone really want to have a CD player on a foot?

So let’s look at something that is innovative. How about Apple’s iPod? The iPod and iTunes revolutionized the way that music is sold. It’s an excellent example of satisfying customer need with a cost-effective and convenient way to access content. Similarly, the iPhone and the iPad kick-started the multibillion-dollar market for mobile apps.

Innovation is too important to fall prey to misconceptions. We need a vibrant innovation culture in this country, and if you don’t take that seriously, consider that half of the corporations that were on the S&P 500 in 2000 had disappeared by the end of 2010, largely due to their inability to continue innovating. We can’t allow this to happen to our nation’s competitive edge—our whole future depends on innovation. Getting people to think about innovation should start with science, engineering, and math—commonly known as STEM—education.

With this in mind, here is my list of ten things to remember about innovation:

• A invention may receive a patent, but a patent doesn’t guarantee that the invention is innovative.

• Ninety percent of new products fail in the marketplace, even when their technology works, because nobody wanted them.

• Innovation does not have to be based on new technology. Apple’s iPod essentially has no groundbreaking new technology; its innovation is the way that it connection with iTunes, creating a new method for the sale and distribution of music.

• Innovation takes a diverse team—no one can do it alone.

• Innovation requires the generation of real value.

• Value is determined by the end user.

• The competition is always better than you think. Many of the best innovations are developed outside of your organization.

• Organizations become less innovative as they grow.

• Venture capitalists don’t take risk. Sure, there is risk in investing in new companies, but VCs do their homework. They research the need and demand, and if convinced of the demand, they assess whether the technology or new concept will satisfy the market better than the competition.

• Innovation takes discipline, commitment, and dedication.

Sometimes coming up with a great idea that people will want and can really use isn’t enough. The engineers who developed the liquid crystal display were honored for their work with the Draper Prize—the Nobel Prize for engineering—in February, but some of them faced significant resistance from their own organizations, which feared that LCDs would disrupt their existing business.

However, these engineers didn’t give up. Look around you and see all of the LCD screens—on your watch, TV, computer monitor, or smartphone. This is a perfect example of innovation requiring discipline, commitment, and dedication.

From Prototype, April 2012.

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