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Innovation’s Fine Line
Our R&D 100 Awards program is often referred to as the “Oscars of Invention”, which was so-named by the Chicago Tribune more than 10 years ago in a feature describing the program. Invention is a correct erm for R&D 100-winning products since it refers to the creation of a product or process for the first
time, and the R&D 100’s refer to products having technological significance introduced into the marketplace.
An innovation on the other hand refers to a new idea, device or process (but not necessarily brought to market). An innovation can also refer to an improvement on or a significant contribution to an existing product,
process or service. Innovative products with significant technological capabilities have been R&D 100 winners in the past, so in many respects, innovations can also refer to R&D 100-winning products.
In common parlance, “innovative (or creative) products” mostly refer to user-friendly new ideas converted into new products, while the term “inventive products” refers to new technologies converted into
first-time products. Apple’s Steve Jobs was often referred to as the poster boy of innovation for the numerous “innovative” products Apple brought to the market. These products were not always inventive—many
times other companies (like Sony) brought the first truly inventive products to market (like Sony’s Walkman
portable music device) many years before Apple came out with its iPod portable music device. And while
the Walkman was popular (and financially successful as well), the iPod was considered truly “innovative” as
it combined several existing technologies (and software) into a much more user-friendly product than other
And that’s where the possible misconception comes from organizations that create truly inventive products
that don’t succeed in the marketplace, possibly because they’re not truly innovative as well. Technology for
technology’s sake isn’t always a winning formula for success or for that matter, winning an R&D 100 Award.
Of course, an innovative product by itself is similarly not a winning formula for success or an R&D 100
Winning an R&D 100 Award (and thus being one of the top technologically significant products in the
world) and succeeding in the commercial marketplace depends on multiple product characteristics including
innovation and technological capabilities, the specific market being served, pricing, timing, user friendliness,
software and marketing execution, among other things.
When evaluating product submissions for the R&D 100 Awards, the judging panel takes into consideration these product characteristics, along with how the product being evaluated compares to competitive
products in its market niche. Again some specific products are evaluated differently than other products in
other categories based on their specific technological advantages. For example, a new metal alloy with a 3%
improvement in physical characteristics might be a significant technological advance whereas a 3% improvement in processing capabilities for a new mass spectrometer might not be a significant technological advance.
These insights into how product submissions for the R&D 100 Awards are evaluated can also be considered in how those same products might be evaluated by potential customers in the commercial marketplace.
All of the characteristics noted above should be considered when introducing a new product. Products no
longer are considered by the customer for just their inventiveness, innovations or pricing. How the customers
(and R&D 100 judges) evaluate a new advanced technology product is based on a fully integrated approach
that integrates all of the characteristics that are being considered.
Apple is currently considered by some analysts as losing some of its innovative ability or “edge”. This was rein-
forced recently when it introduced its iPhone 6 Plus which is similar in capabilities to some Samsung products—
especially the device’s large screen size. But the Apple iPhone 6 Plus was introduced this fall, about three years
following a similarly sized product introduction by Samsung. So, timing is an important factor in the creation of
innovative new products that are not inventive, especially when the innovative features aren’t that dramatic
In these situations, an “inventive” new product can carry more weight than the only slightly more “innova-
tive” product. The “inventive” product is the first to the market with the respective weight of being a market
leader and the often improved reliability, service and distribution characteristics that go along with such. The
R&D 100 judging panel takes these situations into account when evaluating the R&D 100 entries. So should
you when considering the creation of an “inventive” new product or a “me-too” slightly more “innovative”
product, or when considering which of your products would stand the best chance of winning an R&D 100
Award in the 2015 R&D 100 Award competition.