How to Avoid Inventor-Induced Technocide – Part II

In our work with clients, we hear inventors say things that lead to the early demise of their ideas. We call this phenomenon  “technocide,” and we group these sayings into three broad categories:

  • Extreme optimism: “If I build it, they will come.”
  • Myopia: “All I want to do is cool stuff in the lab. I’m not interested in the commercialization process—that’s not my job.”
  • Perfectionism: “It’s not ready yet. I need more research funding and then it will be ready to show the world!”

In my three-part series, I discuss the mindsets behind these sayings. I explain why these mindsets put the inventor – and their organization – at a disadvantage. And I provide tips on how you can help your inventors think in ways that increase the likelihood of successful commercialization.

In part I, I addressed extreme optimism. Here, I write of myopia and how to overcome it.

image of a female inventor at a desk woring

Understand the Inventor’s Mindset

Inventors are driven by discovery. This drive is in their DNA, and the discovery can be a source of great personal fulfillment. In many cases (e.g., academic environments), inventors’ peers and their institutions also judge the inventor on the number of “new ideas” published in peer-reviewed journals—not the discoveries that are converted into a product that someone can use.

However, inventors who are so focused on the discovery that they disengage from the commercialization process often doom their inventions to a quiet life on a dark and dusty shelf. Depending on your organization’s mission and goals, these inventions might also be a poor use of your organization’s resources.

How you can help

Understand how the inventors are motivated.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink points out that many innovators are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards.  It’s important to understand what motivates an inventor and design programs that improve commercialization outcomes while aligning to the inventor’s motivation. This approach will gain far more traction.

  1. Is your inventor extrinsically motivated? Show them the money. Most organizations provide generous payouts to inventors of technologies that are licensed/commercialized by that organization. If possible, point to a research peer in the organization who has benefited financially from participating in commercialization activities. For some inventors, seeing his/her colleague’s new Porsche in the parking lot can be a motivator. This may seem silly, but I’ve seen it! Some organizations also have internal funding available for inventors who engage in (and are champions for) commercialization activities—these funding sources can be a motivator.
  2. Is your inventor intrinsically motivated? Help them see that more funding and opportunities await inventors who support the entire commercialization process.

Tell your inventors the story of Oliver Lodge.

In 1894, Lodge created and demonstrated the first wireless transmission device, based on theories of Heinrich Hertz. Lodge’s scientific colleagues at the time were reportedly amazed by the discovery. Surely, they thought, Lodge would develop the technology into a device or product that people could use. Nope. Rather, Lodge pursued research to prove that ghosts exist. It was another 15 years before wireless communication became a reality, and someone else’s technology was used. Today, nobody remembers Lodge as the creator of the first wireless prototype. For more on Lodge and the story of wireless, read Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

Tell your inventor that they are essential to the commercialization process.

It’s rare that a technology fresh out of the lab can sell itself. We need inventors to frame and convey the value proposition to potential commercialization partners (i.e., giving those partners a reason to believe). We need the Inventors to help transition the technology to the people who can productize and sell it. You need a champion who can promote the technology and is available to troubleshoot and answer questions along the development path. And inventor participation in the commercialization process doesn’t mean that they must quit their day jobs of discovering, building, and/or testing.

Show the inventors their contract.

Many organizations have employment contract language that requires inventors to submit invention disclosures (and/or support commercialization activities, depending on the organization’s mission/goals). Although this is a “stick” approach, a gentle reminder can grease the skids towards inventor participation. In some cases, external research funding is also contractually tied to meeting technology-to-market goals. Failure to meet these goals can result in an inventor’s research funding being pulled.

If all else fails, consider “breaking up” with these inventors.

Focus your time, effort, and funding on the inventors in your organization who are champions for getting their inventions commercialized and used. Focus on your inventors who love discovery and who also feel a little hollow seeing their prototype tucked away on a dusty shelf or serving as a paperweight for a pile of journal-article submissions.

With over 50 years of experience supporting organizations that fund and develop new technologies, RTI’s Innovation Advisors know the signs of impending “technocides” and how to address them. Watch for my next post on helping your inventors move more quickly down the commercialization path.

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About the author

With an extensive background in water quality and environmental science, Andy Helminger leads our water practice and positions our water-tech clients to successfully move innovative products to market. Andy has over 20 years of industry and technology space experience, ranging from consumer products to aerospace. He’s passionate about empowering researchers and their organizations to move technologies from the lab to the real world. And it’s this passion that helps our clients convert good ideas into valuable commercial products. Andy’s technical areas of expertise are water quality and environmental science. He leverages this expertise to help clients – including major consumer products companies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and NASA – with innovation challenges related to water treatment and analysis. Prior to joining our group, Andy worked in environmental compliance for the N.C. Division of Water Quality. He received his M.E.M. in Environmental Management from Duke University and a B.A. in Biology from St. Olaf College.

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