Innovation is Not The Same as Invention

Yes, your dictionary is wrong.

Shaan Sridhar
Oct 21, 2018 · 5 min read
“three persons in front of table” by rawpixel on Unsplash

Many entrepreneurs often confuse the words innovation and invention. If you have too, you’re not alone. So, what makes these words different? The difference is subtle but crucial.

Don’t trust your dictionary — or thesaurus

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“opened book on brown table” by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

When people don’t understand a word, they look it up in the dictionary or thesaurus. Well, sorry. No dictionary or thesaurus is going to help you. Because, to be frank, the definitions are confusing.

invention: something that has never existed before, created or designed by the originator

innovation: something new, like a product or method

When looking at the definitions, they appear strikingly similar. An invention is something new, and an innovation is something new. The Merriam Webster dictionary even goes as far as listing innovation and inventions as synonyms of each other. But, the words are different. Don’t let a book written by a bunch of old English scholars confuse you.

What are the actual definitions then?

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“close up photo black Android smartphone” by Edho Pratama on Unsplash

So now we understand that innovation and invention aren’t the same. But if they aren’t the same, what do they actually mean? Well, the dictionaries did get one thing right. That’s the definition of an invention.

An invention is something new, never seen by the world.

Inventions are created by an originator and are preceded by no other products. They’re the first of their class. But inventions aren’t always popular and often never become mainstream until used or applied elsewhere. For example, the multitouch screen technology (touchscreen) found in phones and some computers were invented way back in 1982 to create finger drawings using a camera. Yet, it never became mainstream until it was applied to a better use in the form of Apple’s iPhone. That new application, the repurposing of the multitouch technology, is called an innovation.

An innovation is an improvement to an existing product or idea, often changed by repurposing the invention or introducing new ideas and technology to the subject

Innovations are better versions, better applications, or more feature-filled versions of their predecessors. Many “revolutionary” products of our time are innovations of previous technology. A great example of this can be found in Steve Jobs, one of the most famous and successful innovators of our time. Steve was hailed as the visionary of Apple, one who could revolutionize anything. Some of his most famous products — the iPhone, iPod, Mac, etc. — were called the greatest inventions of their time. But, none of those revolutionary products were real inventions. The Mac was a vastly improved version of PCs that flooded the consumer markets. The iPod was a hyped Sony Walkman that could hold more songs. Even the iPhone was only an innovation. It was a phone, iPod, and internet browser — three previously invented products combined into one.

So, is innovating better than inventing?

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“toy horse patent” from U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Yes, and no. Going back to the iPhone, have you ever heard of the man who invented multitouch screen technology? Unless you’re an MIT computer science grad or obsessed Apple fan, probably not. But, it’s a fair assumption that almost everyone has heard of Steve Jobs. In almost every case, the innovator is more famous than the inventor. And the innovator almost always gets credit for the work of the inventor as well. Just because innovators are more famous, though, doesn’t make them better.

In order for there to be innovation, there must first be invention. While the inventions might not be as cool as the innovation, they are just as important to the final product. Think of it this way: Inventors are the nerdy mad scientist people who come up with awesome technology and the innovators are the entrepreneurs who are able to see the potential of this invention and apply it to a consumer product. They are equally important. In some rare cases, a product is both an innovation and invention, but it is so rare that I can’t give you a very good example. This rareness is caused by the fact that when new technology is released, it’s foreign to consumers. It’s different, it’s weird, and it often is not the perfect application of the technology. It usually takes a second try, or an innovation, to perfect the invention and make it a mainstream product.

Wrap-up (and for those who don’t want to read)

Innovations and inventions are far from being the same. An invention is something that never existed before; brand new technology. Innovations take this invention and apply it in a way that makes it popular to the target consumer. But an innovation or invention won’t make your company or business automatically successful. The product is just one mile on a long journey to success. Gear up entrepreneurs, you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

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Shaan Sridhar

Written by

Just a small person in a big world trying to make an even bigger impact. Contributor @TheStartup

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +685K people. Follow to join our community.

Shaan Sridhar

Written by

Just a small person in a big world trying to make an even bigger impact. Contributor @TheStartup

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +685K people. Follow to join our community.

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