Where Does Innovation Come From?

Jan. 1, 2000

It has been a busy summer.  For the last couple of months I have had the pleasure of pretending to be a venture capitalist. Earlier this year I joined a local organization called the IT Entrepreneurs Network (ITEN) as a mentor.  This is a local organization that exists to help startups in the local area move from the concept stage to securing funding for their business.   I am in St. Louis, not silicon valley of the MIT corridor or the Pacific Northwest, and access to resources such as venture capitalists, advisors, and programming skills is not as easy as it is in those locations, hence the need for a networking forum for would-be innovators.  One of the mentor roles is serving on a panel of mock angel investors.  We meet with and critique the pitches from startups as they present their business plans to us as though we were potential investors.  This has given me some new insight into the innovative process.

We often hear that the backbone of the economy is small business and that small businesses account for a significant portion of the innovation delivered today.  Microsoft didn't create Facebook, a couple of guys in college did.  IBM didn't create Twitter, a couple of guys in St. Louis (originally) did.  That is not to say big companies like IBM do not innovate.  They are still one of the largest originators of new patents every year.  But it is the small company that seems to create the breakout innovations that are radically changing the very way we interact socially and professionally.  So what is it that triggers this innovative spark in these startups and why can't big firms seem to foster the same level of innovation?

After sitting through numerous mock angel sessions I have detected a common denominator in all of the startups: Passion.  In every case the innovator/entrepreneur was addressing an opportunity or issue near and dear to them.  In one case it was a musician with a IT based coaching tool to help other aspiring musicians actually get started in the recording industry. Their own struggle in understanding how the industry actually worked and a desire to share their learning with others was the inspiration.  In another case it was a someone who struggled with physical therapy as part of their daily regimen.  The need for a motivational force and their knowledge of mobile technology and led them to create an online tool for therapists to use to help clients complete their therapy.    For a tradeshow professional it was the frustration of seeing so many clients struggle with getting value out of their participation in tradeshows that led to an IT based tool to solve that problem.

So why can't large companies leverage that same passion?  Some can.  The pharmaceutical firm that employs the researcher who has lost someone to cancer with the job of finding a cure for cancer can engage that same passion.  However, many of us can't link our passions with our daily jobs.  My skills are analysis, presenting (and teaching) and writing but my passions are cooking and SCUBA diving.  My skills served me well as an analyst at Gartner but I readily admit that I did not have the passion required to be highly innovative while I was there, or at any of my other jobs.  So why don't I start something that leverages my skills in the area I am passionate about?  That is the other element that seems to be common among the likely winners in the startups we have been mentoring; Convergence.

The entrepreneurs that are trying to create these new businesses all seem to have a convergence of passion and skills.  They are either very astutue business people who take their passion and use it to procure the skills they need to develop their idea or they are skilled technicians who can translate their idea into a working product.  It is that convergence of skill and passion that creates innovation.  The challenge in manufacturing today is to figure how to create that convergence in our industry.

Dan Miklovic is blogger contributor for http://www.controlglobal.com" target="blank">Control's blog http://community.controlglobal.com/manufacturing2020/" target="blank">Manufacturing 2020. You can email him at [email protected]">[email protected] or check out his https://plus.google.com/u/0/103625214553210243672=author">Google+ profile.

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