Skip to content

Innovation vs. Invention

February 4, 2011

I wonder if we’ve got the whole thing wrong.

The fact is: universities don’t produce innovation. For that matter, neither does industrial R&D.

What university and industrial research produces is invention.

The Blackberry is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A new cancer-fighting drug is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A more durable prosthetic knee is not an innovation, it’s an invention.

Universities can – and do – produce inventions.

In fact, they produce inventions at an astonishing rate. University tech transfer offices (now usually branded as “centres for innovation and commercialization”) register more intellectual property than could ever be effectively commercialized.

But innovation is distinct from invention. Innovation is about process.

Innovation is about finding more efficient ways to do things. Innovation is about increasing productivity. Innovation is about creating new markets – sometimes through the commercialization of inventions.

Innovation is about the how not about the what.

Now, innovation may involve invention, and it often does. But innovation is the process by which inventions get commercialized.

Innovation is about economics, not knowledge.

As such, academic research and innovation work from opposite directions (as Jim pointed out in his comment). Research-derived invention comes from asking questions, working towards unpredictable new technologies, new capabilities, with an uncertain outcome. Commercial innovation is based on identifying a need, describing the outcome, and then working towards it.  In other words, research ends at the outcome whereas innovation starts there.

If this is the case, then university research is uniquely unqualified to drive innovation.

Investing money into academic R&D to increase innovation is like investing in auto plants to increase car sales. You’re solving the wrong problem.

Increasing innovation, changing the processes by which companies operate, is an economic question, not a scientific or technical one. It needs to be addressed economically, whether through economic incentives, increased competition, improved international trade, etc.

This is not to say that academic research cannot and does not contribute mightily to a modern, innovative economy. It is absolutely essential, as a repository of advanced technical knowledge, a training ground for HQP, and as a generator of inventions. It is also – and I think we’ve stopped making this argument forcefully enough – valuable for its own sake, as a socially valuable and worthwhile endeavour to increase our knowledge and understanding of our world.

And herein lies a danger: in times of uncertain funding, academic research has often justified its expense through its role as a “driver of innovation”. Science has made bold promises, and perhaps hubristically, academics have suggested that R&D can (and will!) be the cornerstone of a “knowledge economy”.

These types of arguments have helped increase CIHR’s annual budget to over $1-billion annually – it’s not just about building new knowledge, it’s explicitly about its “translation into improved health for Canadians”. (A note: the mandate of the MRC – which preceded the CIHR – made no mention of health outcomes. Its role was to “promote, assist, and undertake basic, applied, and clinical research in Canada in the health sciences and to advise the Minister of Health…”. It is no coincidence that the creation of the CIHR included this new focus on outcomes while also doubling its budget).

But here we are, ten years after the $3-billion Human Genome Project’s (HGP) vaunted completion, and grumblings are starting to be heard. Tthe biotech industry didn’t become the next Silicon Valley. “Personalized Medicine” remains a promise for some future date. And the results didn’t tell us anything about cancer – instead, they begat the “Cancer Genome Project“, another $1-billion effort that we’re told will deliver on the HGP’s promise. Promised treatments and economic innovations always just out of reach, another major investment away.

(An aside – in my opinion, the most interesting fact to come out of the HGP was the radical reassessment of the number of human genes and the discovery of “junk DNA”. This has led to fascinating work on microRNAs and other non-coding features that fundamentally changed how we understood genetics and biology. This is basic science at its best.)

The danger lies in making promises and not delivering. If we decide to make our case for research based on deliverables – if we justify increased funding by arguing research can drive innovation – then we have to answer for it when the deliverables don’t show up. And given my argument that academic researchers can’t deliver innovation, then we may be setting ourselves up for a mighty fall.


a note: Maintaining a blog is by nature a solitary exercise – you send your words out into the ether and hope for the best. This is why reader’s comments are so appreciated by bloggers: at a minimum they validate your efforts by demonstrating that people are paying attention. In the best case, though, the comments extend the conversation and provoke new ideas. I am particularly lucky to have thoughtful readers who contribute immeasurably to my ideas. My thoughts in this post were largely inspired by comments by “Jim” and “Spongebob” to my last post. For that, I thank them and encourage others to join the conversation.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 12:54

    I think you’re on to something. I think the focus on innovation has come from government as much as anywhere. Though this is an object lesson in when not to bend your message to fit what you think people want to hear. Risky indeed.

  2. Jim permalink
    February 4, 2011 16:59

    Great post Rob (thanks for the shout out).

    I can’t prove it but my bet is that the focus on innovation is rooted in the Canadian university system simply seeking to break the era of being ignored between 1980-1995. In the late 1990’s Canada was experiencing a major renaissance in economic growth and, after a period of austerity in the mid-1990s, began to reap the benefits of increased taxation revenues. Unanticipated year end surpluses allowed the Liberal government to think “big” and out of this emerged a number of programs that connected to the concept of developing the knowledge economy which greatly benefitted academia. Common to most of these was a not-so-subtle promise to connect to increased productivity of the Canadian economy. Hence the inclusion of “Innovation” in CFI, the KT component of CIHR, the sustainability of the CRCs (although these are now worth 50 cents on the original dollar) and the creation of Genome Canada with its requirement for co-funding (run out of the Dept of Industry and hoping for industrial collaboration).

    Universities are the cradle of new knowledge (and passing on of that knowledge to new minds) but to qualify for infusion of new dollars, the universities had to extend this functionality. What is the point to government of simply growing the number of discoveries? There needed to be reassurance that such creativity would transfer into jobs and wealth. This is a fair demand from the funders (ultimately the tax payers) but was the government sold a bill of goods? Certainly, the new agencies recognized their mandate from day 1 (ever filled in a “Benefits to Canada” section on a CFI application?). The inherent problem/illusion is that if discovery is unpredictable, then one cannot be sure that what is discovered will fit the availability of the resources and expertise responsible for innovation (development, application, etc.). It is difficult to plan what mode of transport to take if you do not know the destination.

    The universities presumably made a compelling case that the agents of innovation would spawn naturally from the increased investment in invention and there would be no problem in taking advantage of these via a ready and willing industrial sector, keen for new products and technologies. The problem is obvious. Inventors like what they do. So do developers. But they do not encounter each other by chance and they rarely share the same bed. Moreover, unlike the relative stability of the academic milieu, the private sector is ridden with risk and volatility and so they attract quite different talents.

    Will academia be held to account for this failure to deliver jobs and wealth? By all sorts of measures, the investments by CFI, CIHR and Genome Canada have lead to considerable success and maintained Canada within the leading cadre of researchers on the global front. But is this the success that was promised? Will government, have been fooled once, now turn the screws to ensure application and development of research through setting of milestones and forced engagement of industry? We all know that that is equally likely to fail. Instead, we should come clean and ensure we are tasked with what we are good at, not what we are not. We need to turn private sector incentives on their head (tax relief via losses is a crazy way to encourage effective growth) such that companies reduce their risk in developing and applying the new knowledge unearthed in the academic sector but that risk is not “back-ended” by SREDs, for example. Let’s admit that discovery and innovation are oil and water (with some interesting exceptions) and educate government and society to equally nurture and value both, but in their appropriate environments – which we should also work to bridge rather than blend.

  3. February 4, 2011 17:17

    Seems logical. We know since a long time that a lot of things that tech industries or pharmaceutical industries are creating, are the result of years of thinking and testing in universities. New ideas comes much more frequently from universities, where Ph.D. students and teachers are testing them and frequently failing. And when one of those ideas become really interesting, sometimes, industry come and finance it. Or create it all by itself. So, let’s call this “preliminary phase”, innovation.

    But that could leave me to the conclusion that industry is wrong in complaining that invention is under-financed in this country, and that investments on business-oriented researches should be expanded. Maybe this definition of innovation could become an argument to say that if universities are not efficient in invention, it is because their primary function is to think, think and think and so, naturally, on the long term, there will be far more non-commercialized innovations. Because somebody had to test it to know it.

    As an example, the biotech industry did not become the next Silicon Alley. Yes. But was it because it was under-financed? As you agree, of course not. It is because some highly vocal people in the industry (and universities) over-hyped the short-term potential of the genome sequencing. Under your definition, we came to see the genome sequencing as “innovation” that will quickly leave us to “inventions’ (medical treatments). But if, in 2011, we are still not there, it is, as you are saying, because we are slowly realizing that genomics is fare more complex than anticipated.

  4. February 5, 2011 10:59

    You seem to be discussing the old argument about R&D- vs. Market- driven innovation. Both are needed, but they must be managed differently. Early studies show that when one looks at successful technological innovation, about 75% of it is the result of market-drivers. A need is recognized and R&D tries to fill the need; the rest is R&D driven, where a capability is developed, and a market for it is either newly recognized or developed. For articles on technological innovation go to Ch. 24 of the Science and Technology Management Bibliography at

  5. February 6, 2011 14:17

    This is an outstanding analysis Rob. If you don’t mind I shall amplify it in one of my future posts.

  6. Nilima permalink
    February 14, 2011 22:07

    Thanks, Rob, for a trenchant post. Rather timely, too – anecdotally, it appears many well-meaning folks are running around like headless chicken, chasing the elusive magic which will convert ideas into sound business practice.

    Following your argument to it’s natural conclusion (and following up on Pascal LaPointe’s post), perhaps the correct thing to do is ask for research funding to stay as is, but with more scientific review and fewer ‘innovation’ strings, and to restructure instead incentives for business. Heck, freeze the funding of NSERC and CIHR, but insist that any partnership programs be paid for by the companies which will ostensibly benefit.

  7. March 29, 2011 08:55

    I do not think you help clarifiy the distinction between invention and innovation when you write that “The Blackberry is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A new cancer-fighting drug is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A more durable prosthetic knee is not an innovation, it’s an invention”.
    The reason is that in the economics of R&D these terms have well defined technical definitions: an invention is the creation of a new combination of means of production, essentially a new process or a new product (or gadjet); il becomes an innovation ONLY WHEN it is introduced on the market; so, patents describes inventions but most of them stays as such: ideas of process or products that are in fact never produced and put on the market. Of course, beyond that precise definition used in economics there is the rhetoric of “innovation” in the vague sense of doing something new.
    But one should not confuse the vague discourse with the precise understanding of the general process of innovation. So, the Blackberry IS an “product innovation” since it has been put on the market and “a more durable prosthetic knee” may stay an invention if it is not put on the market, but once it is produced by a company and sold to hospitals IT BECOMES an innovation. OECDE and Statistics Canada obey to these definitions (contained in the Oslo Manual) in their surveys on innovation. In order to keep confusion to a aminimum, one should stick to these and distinguish them from the vague rhetoric of politicians and university presidents… After all concepts and definitions are essentiel to make distinctions and better understand the complexity of the world.


  1. Knowledge and Economics require different measuring sticks | Piece of Mind
  2. Bold New Toppings: A closer look at the Council of Canadian Academies 3 year plan | The Black Hole: Science in Canada, Issues affecting trainees

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: