New, Exciting And Intriguing Innovations

I love lists and two have caught my attention this past week: The 50 Best Inventions of 2009, published by Time and a list of the Most Intriguing New Businesses, published by BusinessWeek (November 23, 2009). I always marvel at new ideas, wonder how people came up with them, try and identify the problem the new idea will solve and, of course, reflect upon whether the ideas themselves will be successful or whether the ideas might lead to other more successful ideas.

In all of this, however, what I find especially exciting is that innovation is being highlighted. As I have said in a previous blog, since innovation is the engine of economic growth, it is critical to focus our attention on it if we are ever going to get ourselves out of the economic mess we got ourselves into. Add to that the idea that necessity is the mother of invention, and acknowledging that some of our greatest innovations came out of previous recessions (Hewlett Packard at the end of the Great Depression, Atari, Apple and Genentech during the 1980s recession), gives even more impetus to the need to encourage innovation during difficult economic times.

The top 5 inventions on the Time list were:
1. NASA's Ares Rocket: to provide more versatility to space missions with respect to the activities that can be performed and the distances traveled.
2. Tank-Bred Tuna: to solve the problem of diminishing Tuna populations.
3. The $10M Light Bulb: an energy saving LED light bulb to help reduce the amount of energy used, and related costs.
4. The Smart Thermometer: to help regulate home heating and cooling by wirelessly turning appliances off and on.
5. Controller-Free Gaming: to help gamers (e.g., those that play games like Xbox) to play the game by body movement not hand held controllers. The advantage: total immersion in the game.

While the order of the Time list was based on votes, The BusinessWeek 25 Most Intriguing Ideas were not rank ordered. But there were certainly common themes: five related to healthcare (cancer, diabetes and vaccine treatments, online communication with doctors, health and fitness), six related to sustainability (e.g., electric vehicles, reusing waste, harnessing natural resources); and nine related to new media and new technology (e.g., iPhone apps, enhancing online advertising and tracking online behavior).

As a marketer, it is not so much the complexity of the idea itself that intrigues me but the impact the idea will have on the market. Questions I often consider are whether the innovation will encourage consumers to value different attributes, as the Prius has done by encouraging consumers to refocus their discussion of cars around attributes such as eco-friendly and miles per gallon; or whether the innovation will result in a change in behavior, as the iPod did with respect to music consumption behavior; or whether the innovation will lead to a change of opinions, as the anti-aging enzyme resveratrol, an enzyme which is found in red wine, did.

Ultimately, for the innovation to be successful consumers need to adopt it. But for the innovation to offer a sustainable competitive advantage to the sponsoring organization, the innovation often needs to cause a market shift. It will be interesting to look back on the ideas profiled in these latest lists and see which of them are successful and, of course, to understand why.

Jenny Darroch is on the faculty at the Drucker School of Management. She is an expert on marketing strategies that generate growth. See