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Just What Is Innovation?

What is the most overused buzzword of the decade?

Yes, it's innovation.

It seems that every ill the world faces can be cured with a dose of innovation. Economic growth, better education, increased productivity, faster computers, better mobile phones, increased gas mileage... it seems that just about everything can be made better, cheaper, and faster by the use of the ubiquitous innovation.

Why do we care about innovation in Northern Kentucky?

Innovation is a key driver to increasing our economic output. Economic output is increased in one of two ways: increased inputs, or Innovation.

  1. Increased inputs will increase total economic output. For example, if we desire more corn production, an easy solution is to plant more acres of land to increase corn production (of course, more acres growing corn reduces acres growing other crops)

  2. Innovation can increase economic outputs. For example, in the period 1866 to 1936, corn yield per acre was flat at 26 bushels per acre. From 1936 to 2016, corn yield grew to 175 bushels per acres. That amazing increase was due to innovations in farming like crop genetics, fertilization, chemical pesticides, and agricultural mechanization.

The economic growth in computing, medicine, and business processes all have innovation as the core driver. Innovation has changed the lives of Americans. We live healthier lives due to the development of innovative antibiotics and immunizations, travel the world with the development of jet engines, and conduct business around the world due to telecommunication innovations and the computer in our pocket called a mobile phone.

This article is the first in a series of articles by the Kentucky Innovation Office of Northern Kentucky and its guests. This series will discuss innovation in our region, Northern Kentucky: how innovation is nurtured from the primary education system through startups and their funding sources, small and large businesses, and industry-specific companies. Along the way, you will learn about the companies using innovation to increase our region’s economic output.

I will close this article’s discussion with a math equation and a client story regarding innovation.  First the math equation:

Invention x Successful Commercialization = Innovation

I am confident that all the readers can spot an “invention”. It is one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it things. Now, the average reader may not have heard of “commercialization”. Commercialization is the process of the preparation, introduction, and pivoting an invented idea, product, or service into the marketplace. Taking companies through the commercialization process is the “bread and butter” work of the Innovation Network Office.

Let’s review our math equation (Invention x Successful Commercialization = Innovation) in relation to an Innovation Network client story. About ten years ago, at the height of the Iraq War, a client invented a product that was a new and revolutionary way to quickly build structures in the desert that protected soldiers. It was a better and cheaper method than anything on the market. The Innovation Network Office helped the client develop drawings, build and test prototypes, made industry introductions, and assisted in fundraising. The company raised $5 million to build and test prototypes, commission production, and to undertake marketing and sales. But by the time the product was ready for market entry, the war was largely winding down. The founders shopped the product to many possible customers without success.

Nobody bought the product. Finally, a quasi-competing company bought the company essentially to remove a competitor from the marketplace.

So the client had a great invention with lots of hope and promise but, the commercialization process failed despite the best efforts of all involved. Did the product ever reach the level of an innovation? Let’s go back to the equation as it applies to this client’s product:

Invention x Failed Commercialization = No Innovation

Remember your multiplication facts? Anything multiplied by zero equals zero.

We hope that you enjoy the series that will follow.

Casey Barach is the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network - Northern Kentucky Office

Photo: Innovation Alley in Covington (RCN file)