Invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship are words frequently thrown around by entrepreneurs to generally describe the act of bringing a product or idea into the world. While easy to confuse, each concept is distinct and requires specific skills. When it’s time to choose the right people for your startup, these distinctions are critical.
Let’s start with invention. It is the moment when you connect multiple problem statements with existing solutions from other spaces, parallel or unrelated, and come up with a new combination of thought that solves the problem statement that you have discovered. It is a mental event, Often the moment of invention is very clearly defined. An invention can also develop over a period of time when you’re working on something and you slowly realize the little pieces that make the system work better. In the aggregate, you’ve actually changed some essential component of your system and have an invention you can file a patent on.
An inventor is the person who synthesizes the problem statement and solutions into a novel solution that solves some unique problem. This definition of an invention is completely indifferent to what you do with the invention afterwards; you can be an inventor and not have done anything at all other than the mental exercise. This type is common at universities, but innovators exist in university environments as well. Innovation is an ongoing process of getting an invention to a point where it has an application value of some kind. That doesn’t happen automatically, because technology is only useful if somebody uses it. Unlike knowledge, technology doesn’t have any intrinsic value. If you discover that some distant object in the sky is a planet, that knowledge has some abstract value for humanity. If you find a cure for cancer and it doesn’t teach you anything new about biology, or the human body, and is just a particular mix of stuff that works, then it has no value until it actually cures somebody’s cancer.
The boundaries around the innovation process are sloppy, but roughly include all the steps between invention and pre-commercialization, or possibly commercialization. This is the period when you start thinking not just about your idea, but what you need to do to make it work in practical terms. Startups are sometimes the point of invention, but more often than not they are created after the invention to act as innovation.
Entrepreneurship is about driving innovation in a constrained environment (e.g. limited money or time). Often this happens in a startup, but it’s perfectly possible to be an entrepreneur inside a large corporation if the constraints are in place. An entrepreneur’s job is not just to bring the technology to market, or to the commercialization stage; the job of the entrepreneur is to create and maintain the environment that allows innovation to occur (people, money, goals, etc.). Unlike single person corporations or partnerships that do not have an inherent constraint, opportunity, or even desire to scale (doctors, lawyers, consultants, and other freelancers), entrepreneurs engage in an aggressive pursuit of scale under conditions of risk. On top of this you need an entrepreneur who can create the environment in which the inventor can thrive (people, dollars, money, and infrastructure). And while your innovator and entrepreneur might be one and the same person, it is important to keep in mind that both roles need to be filled.