How the U.S. Can Inspire the Next Generation of Innovators

To inspire innovation, nations rely on measures like R&D grants, tech incubators, venture capital tax breaks, mentoring schemes, support groups, training programs, networking events and more. But these focus on existing entrepreneurs and businesses, not future innovators. What can be done to support new innovators?

With the cloud channel revolution, the bar to innovation has been lowered in terms of committed capital and time to market. The newest generation of tech companies uses hackathons and the latest methods of collaborating with entrepreneurial, self-taught coders to reach business decision makers (BDMs). And they have stepped up their diversity efforts to empower and leverage the potential of underrepresented innovators, including women.

“When women have successful examples of women entrepreneurs and innovators in their lives, they believe in their ability to excel in that arena,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation, a document filing service company that she bought out of Intuit. “If they have inspirational professors or colleagues, they are more likely to take the initiative in innovation and IP development. For example, my focus is to innovate and develop a system for business owners to incorporate and manage their businesses. To diversify the entrepreneurial world and to create more innovation, people need to be inspired by examples of themselves and success of others to whom they relate.”

Real-time Networks Accelerate Commercialization

Innovation is not the same thing as commercialization. Ideas exist in abundance, but having a structured process to bring them to fruition is key. Too often, the path from R&D to delivery of new products is vague and difficult, hindering the process of moving ideas forward. Fortunately, patents provide the world’s largest database of information about innovation—including trends and industry direction. But tapping into the people behind the ideas is where the real power lies.

“A professional networking platform for inventors, with access to millions of inventor profiles, would accelerate collaboration for the idea generators of today,” says Tyron Stading, president and founder, Innography, a provider of patent analytics. “That could enable gathering real-time feedback on inventors’ ideas, identifying trends in the idea market and determining who is already innovating within the area of interest.”

So in this way inventors could engage with and obtain support from others in the idea development process. According to Innography, its IdeaScout idea and innovation management software could help deliver solutions to these needs and close the gap among researchers, developers and the rest of the intellectual property team.

Angels Mentoring No-product Startups and Crowdfunding

Since 2007, R&D investment in the U.S. has increased by more than 20 percent, according experts in the field. Many of the angel investors who participate in this R&D cycle look for startups that already have products to reduce their risk and boost return on investment, but doing the opposite could actually be better for the angel who can also provide guidance.

“I think angel groups are remiss in focusing on post-product companies,” says Stelios Valavanis, founder and CEO, onShore Security, and repeat angel investor. “I want super early stage companies for the greatest return and because they may welcome my mentoring, which I believe increases the company value. My angel group won’t do this. So I invested in Built by Coder, a development shop specializing in minimum viable product, mainly mobile, by taking an equity stake.”

And as popular as angel funding has become in the minds of the public due to TV shows like Shark Tank, entrepreneurs may need more than a few well-heeled individual investors to make it. And with only a few investors, they could be subject to the jerks and jostles of the VC funding route. Fortunately, crowdfunding mechanisms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have come into existence to spread the risk and broaden the opportunity for all. But these name-brand investment networks require their innovators to know marketing best practices, according to others in the crowdfunding field.

“Currently, crowdfunding still has a high bar, excluding anyone with limited funds and little marketing experience,” says Felix Hartmann, CEO,, an end-to-end crowdfunding platform that provides creators with support tools. “We empower innovators and inventors to enter the entrepreneurial field by working with them one on one and giving them the resources they need to succeed. While we filter for merit in the concept, once approved, we help connect them to the right people and walk them through their first crowdfunding round to get things off the ground.”

And getting that early financing remains vital to building the bridge to successful innovation, according to Hartmann. But once entrepreneurs have made it, they get inundated by supporters, he feels.

“We are trying to change that,” Hartmann says. “Our motto: we empower you to realize your dreams.”

Look Within for Idea Innovation

An unfounded belief persists that entrepreneurs are the primary innovators. However, in a study of the top 30 innovations of the last 30 years up through 2009, as judged by Wharton professors, shows innovations that most affected society were conceived by company workers, not entrepreneurs, according to Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff, a Wharton alum and self-described study author.

“Of the most impactful innovations—think DNA sequencing or the internet—78 percent were conceived  by employees,” says Krippendorff, an author of books on innovation who also runs Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm. “Like entrepreneurs, successful employee-innovators are innovative thinkers, connected to the market and customer and able to take autonomous action. But in three ways they are quite different: they do not embrace risk but rather take calculated risks, enjoy internal politics and have an intrinsic motivation to innovate.”

So in order to encourage innovation, these characteristics of employee-innovators should be developed early on, according to Krippendorff. Logically, not only would that increase the level of innovation but also ease the task of innovation management.

Internal Think Tanks for Culture of Innovation

Going a step further, not only should companies create the underlying conditions for innovation that generate patents and trade secrets but also formalize the process by having an internal think tank to establish a culture of innovation. Many corporations pay lip service to this type of program but few actually follow through in any meaningful way, according to analysts.

“Businesses often claim to be innovation-driven,” says Margaret J. King, Ph.D., director, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank that researches human behavior and decision making, including creativity for top corporations. “But there is little in their culture to support idea generation, planning, experimentation by prototype, creative team dynamics and the right to fail in order to succeed. For example, Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before inventing a viable light bulb. Today, few companies are willing to underwrite that level of applied research.”

She goes on to point out a few exceptions that prove the rule such as the 3M Innovation Center, Disney Imagination Institute and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. Other businesses should follow these examples of creating an idea lab that they will need in order to flourish, according to King. In addition, a new innovation report outlines three thematic elements that can help leaders champion a culture of innovation within a corporation such as:

  • Building a safe and stable environment for creativity
  • Creating alignment and ownership around a vision and strategy
  • Leveraging differences and encouraging constructive conflict

“With the fast pace of change, understanding behaviors that positively correlate with driving innovation provides a huge advantage to leaders,” says Meredith Courtney, consultant, Bates Communications, a leadership consultancy with clients around the globe. “This new research reveals insight on what it takes to cultivate innovation and capitalize on day-to-day opportunities. We analyzed leaders who were described as being most effective in driving innovation and the specific leadership behaviors they demonstrated.”

According to Courtney, the authors of this report, Andrew Atkins and Michael Seitchik, are experienced practitioners in leadership development who have spent decades working with leaders and researching the qualities that make leaders and teams effective.

Federal Labs Transfer Tech to Lower Bar to Innovation

A somewhat overlooked initiative among the innovation industry could be the network of federal laboratories that conduct tax-funded R&D across science and technology disciplines, according to the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) that promotes, educates and facilitates technology transfer (T2), the process by which federal technologies are licensed to industry.

“Federal laboratories’ cutting-edge facilities, technologies and expertise are made available to innovators throughout the United States to lower the bar to innovation by leveraging taxpayers’ investment in R&D to bring those technologies to market faster,” says Paul Zielinski, FLC chairman. “Some of the most recognizable technologies we use today—like GPS, memory foam, Gardasil vaccine and others—were first developed in a federal laboratory. It was only through the T2 process that these technologies made powerful economic and societal impacts.”

FLC maintains a one-stop-shop database for federal laboratory information available for collaborative partnership. A short video titled Accessing Federal Laboratory Resources with FLC Business explains how to leverage federal resources such as laboratory facilities, equipment, technologies for licensing, funding and expertise for business advancement, according to Zielinski.


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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Eric Berend]
    Eric Berend
    May 26, 2017 06:58 am

    Pollyanna stuff. Independent inventors who have any cogent awareness of the current state of affairs in U.S. patent law, have been driven away; and do not trust the system.

    The author of this article, while well-intentioned, is describing Step 6 or 8 of a restoration of at least some equity to the treatment of inventors’ and patentees’ property interests; whereas the situation is not even yet at Step 2 of any possible beneficial remediation.

    As an inventor, I appreciate the sentiment and agree with most of these observations, but find the assumptions required to be unrealistic, at present.

  • [Avatar for Ternary]
    May 25, 2017 03:32 pm

    “However, in a study of the top 30 innovations of the last 30 years up through 2009, as judged by Wharton professors, shows innovations that most affected society were conceived by company workers, not entrepreneurs…” What? Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Genentech, Amgen, Google, Facebook…! One can make perhaps a point that some of the ideas were conceived prior to when these companies started, but most certainly, the conceivers did not turn the conception into an economic activity.

    How to translate institutional research into innovative products or services has been the conundrum for companies. It has been long recognized that some (not all) of the most influential inventions come from independent inventors. The reason for that is that there is often no linear path to revolutionary inventions. It is known, from well documented cases, that it takes a type of singular “bloody-minded” inventor, to take a path untraveled and often undesired by the powers in charge. Be it in government, companies, universities, VCs or grant-giving organizations. One of the very few organizations that actually tries to support truly “high risk” inventions is DARPA.

    Despite the myth of the independent inventor and his/her role in the development of unsurpassed economic growth in America’s economy over the centuries, little has been done to stimulate independent inventions. In fact, many independent inventors are often treated as crackpots or at least being out-of-touch with reality. Independent inventors (but only a few) are only celebrated after they become successful. Like our current patent system, mainly driven by hindsight.

    What we see nowadays is a confluence of well educated inventors, easy to obtain and to use software tools and a strong move in our economy to software improved devices and services. The potential to unleash new products and services is enormous. There is an unprecedented opportunity for independent inventors to develop their own ideas into inventions that should be patentable. That is not to say that independent inventors are the only path to innovation, they are not. But they offer novel approaches and economic opportunities that are not only NOT stimulated by organizations, but often effectively stopped. For these inventors to move outside established organizations and obtain patents is not in the interest of their current employers. It never was, not in the past and not now. In fact, the establishment, at this time of unprecedented possible new software based inventions, is choking this source of innovation by making it economically not protectable.

    Like in the past, efforts are made to make “revolutionary” internal innovation more manageable and predictable. It largely failed in the past and I predict it will be largely unsuccessful in the future. These efforts are still based on the conviction that inventing is like a managed engineering activity. But most engineering practitioners will have experienced the opposition to any idea that is novel and unproven. It is inherent to engineering, where over-engineering and safety margins are baked in. We know how to stimulate revolutionary inventions but it costs money and it is often against the inherently hierarchical structure of organizations.

    For a fraction of the cost of modifying the ways of governments and institutions, we can easily stimulate revolutionary inventions by independent inventors. Let’s be honest, most people are uncomfortable with others who think “outside-the box.” And when an invention works, the system will do its utmost to declare in hindsight that the invention was really “inside-the-box” or failed in other ways, like being directed to an “abstract idea.”

    A more “independent inventor friendly” patent system would be a start to assist independent inventors and to stimulate new economic activity.