Guest Article: The Era of the Light Bulb Moment

18 March 2011

The Era of the Light Bulb Moment

Clio Davies - Innovate Product Design Ltd


A reflection on the materialisation of the everyman inventor and the consequential growth of the Innovation Industry during the current economic climate

As Britain teeters on the brink of a double dip recession, with inflation stalking our every step, one industry emerges victor of the economic downturn; an industry born from innovation. As companies that have taken advantage of the ever-increasing ideas pool continue to grow, it spurs the question: 'What is driving this invention-as-a-career phenomenon?'


Having worked in the industry, during one of Britain's most financially crippling years, it seems to me that the innovation business has almost succeeded as a bi-product of the recession. With people nationwide struggling to find work, with job vacancies at an all time low and redundancy at an all time high, the unbeknown inventors find themselves with a wealth of free time to hand and an urgency-fuelled imagination, to make money by any means.


For a company that helps individual inventors take new product ideas to market, a pattern emerges in the genre of ideas that pour through the door on a daily basis. It would seem that the majority centre on recurring themes, such as childcare, horticulture, angling, golf and other such sports. With images of full time mothers and retired pensioners immediately being provoked, the same resounding pattern dominates; that people with ideas equate to people with time to spare.


This theory is in no way an insult. If you look back in history it can be seen that some of the world's most influential inventors discovered their groundbreaking ideas whilst indulging in free time: Isaac Newton discovered gravity whilst lazing in the sun under an apple tree; and Archimedes produced his theory on displacement whilst indulging in a relaxing bath.


To say that ideas are sprung from having time to spare is too much of a generalisation, but having the time to entertain one's imagination can only but benefit this new ideas culture. However, it does become apparent that when it comes to innovation, certain stereotypes emerge. Besides the 'free-time inventor', there are three other dominant stereotypes that prevail: 'the money-driven inventor', 'the over-zealous inventor' and 'the lazy inventor'.


'The money-driven inventor' is the one who sees a gap in the market where money can be made. Their initial questions, when preparing to tackle the innovation mountain, are, more often than not: 'How much money does it cost to take an idea to market?', followed swiftly by 'How much will I see in the way of returns...and when?' These inventors are the would-be entrepreneurs of this world and often use the success of a first project to further others. It is imaginative business people, such as these, that follow in the footsteps of great entrepreneurs, such as Alan Sugar: the boy who began his career selling film in the school playground, with no personal interest in the scheme other than money, but who grew into one of the wealthiest, most successful business men of our time.


To be driven by money, when it comes to inventing, has both its benefits and pitfalls. Seeing a gap in the market is not the same as knowing the market. However, these people are the ones that will approach an idea with a business head. 'The money-driven inventor' is always welcome amongst inventions companies, as they are under no delusions when it comes to the money that needs to be spent on a project first, before profit can be made. The benefit of these inventors is that they will do their homework; knowing the hurdles to expect and the potential costs. Due to the very factor that drives them in innovation, the inventors from this category are more than likely to succeed at market, due to their diligence and dollar-sign tinted spectacles. Because of this business-like approach to innovation, 'the money-driven inventor' is the antithesis of our second stereotype: 'the over-zealous inventor'.


'The over-zealous inventor' is the most enthusiastic inventor of them all. This enthusiasm is vital when it comes to marketing a new product; however, it is often over-enthusiasm that can play to an inventor's detriment. Out of all the inventor stereotypes, it is probable that from this category some will never make it to market. With enthusiasm comes haste, and it is for this reason that often these inventors will fall at the first hurdle. Inventions companies can often see this inventor coming: this inventor is the one who will tell you from the offset that there is nothing like their product in the world and that it will have global recognition once at market. It is often, for this inventor, a simple Google search that will dissipate all future invention dreams. Enthusiasm often acts as a blind sight in these situations, as inventors oversee any initial preparation needed when looking to further a project.


Also under the umbrella of 'the over-zealous inventor' are the would-be scientists of this world. It is these people that instantly provoke the stereotypical image of the mad scientist: the Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein's Monster) and"Doc" Browns (Back to the Future) predecessors. However, unlike in the world of literature and film, where living monsters can be created from limbs of the dead and time machines can defy the age old laws of temporal measurement, 'the over-zealous inventor''s mad ideas are often not physically possible.  It is often these inventors whose over-zealous nature and sheer enthusiasm sees them overlook the very basis of scientific law, bringing to inventions companies their anti-gravity and perpetual motion machines.  For these inventors, a quick lesson in thermodynamics and a reflection on Newton's law is enough to see them recoil to their lab: may that be laboratory or labyrinth.


However, to be over-zealous when it comes to innovation is not always a negative, as with enthusiasm also comes benefits, as this would-be inventor is often equally as likely to see a novel product through to market as 'the money-driven inventor'. This is purely due to the drive generated by their passion for their new product ideas and it is for these people that marketing companies are a hazardous pitfall. To have the ambition and enthusiasm that is needed to take a project to market, is of much greater value than paying a company to do the same job, minus the passion. It is 'the over-zealous inventor' whose intent fervour will win over any prospective buyer or licensee, when pitching.


And so, on balance we come to 'the lazy inventor', also known as 'the clever inventor'; the one who invents a product to make a job easier; transferring what was once manual labour into the hands of a tool. These stereotypes are, more often than not, the DIY enthusiast or the construction worker; the inventors who want a job doing well but surpass doing it themselves. If a tool can be invented that alleviates work and saves time, then this man is the one to bring it to market. Never mind the long process of patenting, designing and marketing, this inventor sees the end product and its benefits as his ultimate goal.


It is often these inventors who invent the products that people did not realise they needed until it is produced and, further on from this, leaves them wondering how they could ever have lived without it. On a more professional scale, one such example of this would be the recently marketed Dyson Ball. For years we struggled pushing vacuum cleaners in a forward and backward motion trying desperately to navigate them around the anything but square room, whilst dirt built up in the corners, now, 150 years on from the first vacuum cleaner, patented in 1860, and 25 years on from the first ever Dyson, we have an all-round, manoeuvrable device, whereby a vacuum cleaner can be pushed in any direction with ease. This invention left the country astounded. Not because of its ingenious application, however ingenious it may be, but because of its pure simplicity and the very fact it took over 150 years to invent. It seems to beg the question: 'Why was this not an essential part of the very foundation of the vacuum cleaner?'


It is often the seemingly simplest of inventions that are the most needed and, therefore, the most marketable, which is why the everyman inventor is championed for his tea straining devices (Teatool - and portable, outdoor toilets (BoginaBag - These are the products that we coped adequately without for years but now cannot imagine a world where they do not exist. Such technological examples of these would be the female (and sometimes male) revolution that is hair straighteners, as well as the ingenious map-replacement, the SatNav. However, the mobile phone was, ultimately, one of the most prolific inventions of its kind, in this category, and the application of texting is the epitome of 'the lazy inventor': why make human contact when you can correspond by machine?


It is questionable whether we can relate this 'lazy inventor' stereotype to the contemporary mass media focus on Britain's lazy culture, which concurrently is having a knock-on effect with an increase in numbers of obesity, heart problems and other such medical conditions, as modern day technology alleviates the amount of exercise required from us. As technology consumes our daily lives, as vehicles transport us wherever we need and entertainment requires a touch of a button, it surely urges the question as to whether invention success is having repercussions for the very basis of humanity, human health and ethics. With one group of scientists believing that the progression of robotics will see a robot brain being invented by 2019 it is a wonder whether the advances of technology will have a lasting, negative, impact on humanity, begging the question: 'What will man be doing when inventions are doing all the work for us?'


However, it is this advanced nature of innovation that we choose to leave to the expert technologists and instead look to champion the everyman inventor. These inventors provide a glimpse of hope, amidst economic gloom, that there is a career to be sprung from innovation and, for inventions companies, that there is business to be generated in advocating these next generation entrepreneurs. From the dark pit of recession has sprung an innovation utopia, where access to free time is invaluable and the drive, whatever the motive, is indispensable. To say that innovation is unproblematic is never further from the truth, but with the ever increasing assistance proffered by inventions companies, fuelled by the new product ideas of individuals, so Britain paves the way for the era of the light bulb moment.