From Inspiration to Implementation

Introducing the Invention Cycle


There is an insatiable demand for innovation and entrepreneurship. These skills are required to help individuals and ventures thrive in a competitive and dynamic marketplace. However, many people don’t know where to start. There isn’t a well-charted course from inspiration to implementation.

Other fields — such as physics, biology, math, and music — have a huge advantage when it comes to teaching those topics. They have clearly defined terms and a taxonomy of relationships that provide a structured approach for mastering these skills. That’s exactly what we need in entrepreneurship. Without it, there’s dogged belief that these skills can’t be taught or learned.

Below is a proposal for definitions and relationships for the process of bringing ideas to life, which I call the Invention Cycle. This model provides a scaffolding of skills, beginning with imagination, leading to a collective increase in entrepreneurial activity.

Invention Cycle

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, scaling unique ideas, by inspiring others’ imagination.

This is a virtuous cycle: Entrepreneurs manifest their ideas by inspiring others’ imagination, including those who join the effort, fund the venture, and purchase the products. This model is relevant to startups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

This framework allows us to parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes required at each step along the way.

  • Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives.
  • Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address challenges.
  • Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others.

Not every person in an entrepreneurial venture needs to have every skill in the cycle. However, every venture needs to cover every base. Without imaginers who engage and envision, there aren’t compelling opportunities to address. Without creators who are motivated to experiment, routine problems don’t get solved. Without innovators who focus on challenging assumptions, there are no fresh ideas. And, without entrepreneurs who persistently inspire others, innovations sit on the shelf.

Let’s look at an example to see these principles at work:

As a Biodesign Innovation Fellow at Stanford University, Kate Rosenbluth spent months in the hospital shadowing neurologists and neurosurgeons in order to understand the biggest unmet needs of physicians and their patients.

In the imagination stage, Kate worked with a team of engineers and physicians to make lists of hundreds of problems that needed solving, from outpatient issues to surgical challenges. By being immersed in the hospital with a watchful eye, she was able to see opportunities for improvement that had been overlooked. This stage required engagement and envisioning.

In the creativity stage, the team was struck by how many people struggle with debilitating hand tremors that keep them from holding a coffee cup or buttoning a shirt. They learned that as many as six million people in the United States are stricken with Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that cause tremors. The most effective treatment is deep brain stimulation, an onerous and expensive intervention that requires permanently implanting wires in the brain and a battery pack in the chest wall. Alternatively, patients can take drugs that often have disabling side effects. The team was driven to help these patients and began meeting with experts, combing the literature, and exploring ways to improve the existing treatments. This stage required motivation and experimentation.

In the innovation stage, Kate had an insight that changed the way that she thought about treating tremors. She challenged the assumption that the treatment had to focus on the root cause in the brain and instead focused on the peripheral nervous system in the hand, where the symptoms occur. She partnered with Stanford professor Scott Delp to develop and test a relatively inexpensive, noninvasive, and effective treatment. This stage required focus and reframing.

In the entrepreneurship stage, Kate recently launched a company, Cala Health, to develop and deliver new treatments for tremors. There will be innumerable challenges along the way to bringing the products to market, including hiring a team, getting FDA approval, raising subsequent rounds of funding, and manufacturing and marketing the device. These tasks require persistence and inspiring others.

While developing the first product, Kate has had additional insights, which have stimulated new ideas for treating other diseases with a similar approach, coming full circle to imagination!

This model underpins related frameworks for innovation and entrepreneurship, such as design thinking and the lean startup methodology. Both of these models focus on defining problems, generating solutions, building prototypes, and iterating on the ideas based on feedback. The Invention Cycle describes foundational skills that are mandatory for those methods to work. Just as we must master arithmetic before we dive into algebra or calculus, it behooves us to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and methodology before we design products and launch ventures. By understanding the Invention Cycle and honing the necessary skills, we identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition.

With clear definitions and a taxonomy that illustrates their relationships, the Invention Cycle defines the pathway from inspiration to implementation. This framework captures the skills, attitudes, and actions that are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world.


Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University School of Engineering, and Faculty Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Her latest book, Insight Out, describes the Invention Cycle. It was released Spring 2015.