Innovation Entrepreneurship Jan 4, 2018

Take 5: Make Your Big Idea a Success

Kel­logg fac­ul­ty share what it takes to find, fos­ter, and sell innovation.

Morgan Ramberg

Based on the research and insights of

Benjamin F. Jones

Mark McCareins

Pete Slawniak

Brian Eng

Jeffrey Cohen

Bryony Reich

Loran Nordgren

Find­ing a great idea is one thing. Know­ing what to do with it is anoth­er. How do you get the word out? Pro­tect it from intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty theft? Intro­duce it to the market? 

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Kel­logg fac­ul­ty share their research and insights into the best ways to unearth inno­v­a­tive ideas — and make sure they thrive. 

1. Stay Up-to-Date on Sci­ence

Sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies can lead to mar­ketable inno­va­tions. That’s not news. What is news: the fre­quen­cy and speed with which they do it. 

In fact, the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of sci­en­tif­ic research leads to the devel­op­ment of patent­ed inven­tions, accord­ing to Ben­jamin Jones, a pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy, and Moham­mad Ahmad­poor, a post­doc­tor­al researcher at Kellogg.

By exam­in­ing almost 5 mil­lion patents and 32 mil­lion jour­nal arti­cles, Jones and Ahmad­poor found that 80 per­cent of papers with at least one cita­tion could be linked to a future patent. 

Not only that, but they also found that on aver­age only six years lapsed between the pub­li­ca­tion of the research paper and the patent appli­ca­tion that direct­ly cit­ed it. As for indi­rect cita­tions — cas­es in which, for exam­ple, a paper was cit­ed by anoth­er paper that was then cit­ed by a patent — those gen­er­al­ly saw a time lapse of about 20 years between the orig­i­nal research paper and the patent application. 

That’s rel­a­tive­ly quick,” Jones says. Sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies are pay­ing off in a cou­ple of decades, not 50 or 100 years in the future.” 

Where did this research come from? Almost 80 per­cent of the papers cit­ed direct­ly by patents stemmed from uni­ver­si­ty or non­prof­it researchers. But the patent appli­ca­tions that cit­ed those papers most­ly came from for-prof­it companies. 

The moral of the sto­ry: if you want your com­pa­ny to inno­vate, keep abreast of sci­en­tif­ic breakthroughs. 

2. Pro­tect Your Intel­lec­tu­al Prop­er­ty from the Start

Say you’ve found­ed a start­up based on some big idea. Pro­tect­ing your intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty may take time and mon­ey, but it is most def­i­nite­ly worth doing, says Mark McCareins, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of busi­ness law at the Kel­logg School and for­mer senior part­ner at the law firm Win­ston and Strawn LLP

Almost every start­up has an idea that’s prob­a­bly worth pro­tect­ing,” he says, whether it’s a piece of soft­ware or a bit of code or a total­ly new invention.” 

Accord­ing to McCareins, it is nev­er too ear­ly to think about pro­tect­ing your invest­ment. If you don’t address IP ear­ly, you run the risk of either A, spend­ing all this mon­ey in research and devel­op­ment on some­thing that isn’t patentable, or B, incu­bat­ing with a third par­ty, but because you have not pro­tect­ed your IP rights suf­fi­cient­ly, you allow the third par­ty or oth­ers to extract your IP away from you with­out you even know­ing it,” McCareins cautions. 

And when you do take the plunge, avoid doing any patent appli­ca­tions through an inex­pen­sive web­site. That’s like hav­ing brain surgery done at a dri­ve-through clin­ic, says McCareins. (Be sure to read the rest of his inter­view with Argonne Nation­al Laboratory’s Pete Slawniak.) 

3. Learn to Talk Tech

No mat­ter how ana­log your indus­try, you have to be tech­nol­o­gy-savvy to get your ideas — that is, your deliv­er­ables — into the world. 

If you’re start­ing a con­struc­tion com­pa­ny, you might think it’s just lum­ber and nails,” says Bri­an Eng, co-founder and man­ag­ing part­ner of Blue­buz­zard, a Chica­go-based soft­ware firm, and an adjunct lec­tur­er of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at the Kel­logg School. But tech­nol­o­gy always ends up being a more crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the oper­a­tion than you might think.” 

He is talk­ing not only about social-media accounts, but also about back-end tech­nol­o­gy such as web servers and cred­it-card proces­sors. It is vital to become at least some­what con­ver­sant with the rel­e­vant tech jar­gon, so you can avoid pricey blunders. 

Even if you nev­er intend to write a sin­gle line of code, when you are out­sourc­ing, you will have a bet­ter idea of whether the price a ven­dor quotes is real­is­tic, or if they are just try­ing to fleece you,” says Jef­frey Cohen, an inde­pen­dent soft­ware engi­neer, entre­pre­neur, and adjunct lec­tur­er at the Kel­logg School. 

It is impor­tant to take advan­tage of the many off-the-shelf tech tools out there, as well. With the exis­tence of ser­vices such as Square (for cred­it-card trans­ac­tions) and Batch (which auto­mates dig­i­tal-mar­ket­ing func­tions), there is no rea­son for a start­up to rein­vent the wheel by com­ing up with its own solution. 

4. Match Your Inno­va­tion to Your Mar­ket

If your big idea is tech­ni­cal in nature, choose care­ful­ly where to launch it, says Bry­ony Reich, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy at the Kel­logg School who has stud­ied how inno­va­tion spreads through societies. 

Some tech­nolo­gies spread well through tight-knit soci­eties and social groups, while some spread bet­ter through more indi­vid­u­al­is­tic ones. Specif­i­cal­ly, tech­nolo­gies that are con­sid­ered low thresh­old” — mean­ing that they are valu­able even if only a small num­ber of peo­ple adopt them, such as com­put­ers or agri­cul­tur­al inno­va­tions — tend to do bet­ter in more indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­tures, such as the U.S.

In con­trast, high-thresh­old” tech­nolo­gies require a large num­ber of users in order to pro­vide val­ue. (Think of mes­sag­ing appli­ca­tions such as What­sApp.) Those tech­nolo­gies tend to spread more eas­i­ly in high­ly cohe­sive set­tings. For exam­ple, in Mex­i­co, where com­mu­ni­ties tend to be more close­ly knit than in the U.S., 78 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion used instant-mes­sag­ing apps in 2013, com­pared to only 23 per­cent of the U.S. population. 

This infor­ma­tion can ben­e­fit com­pa­nies seek­ing new mar­kets, Reich says, by giv­ing them insights into where a par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy is like­li­est to suc­ceed and how they might incen­tivize con­sumers. For exam­ple, a cell-phone com­pa­ny could incen­tivize users in a loose­ly knit set­ting to adopt its high-thresh­old tech­nol­o­gy by offer­ing a fam­i­ly-and-friends phone plan. 

5. Get Oth­ers Excit­ed

So you’ve got a tru­ly ground­break­ing idea. No mat­ter how great it is, don’t expect oth­ers to embrace it right away, says Loran Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. 

That’s because, sim­ply put, humans just are not hard­wired to accept change. If you were deal­ing with total­ly ratio­nal agents, you could sell your inno­va­tion on the grounds of its func­tion­al­i­ty — in oth­er words, why it’s a good idea,” Nord­gren says. But you are almost nev­er deal­ing with total­ly ratio­nal agents.” 

For­tu­nate­ly, there are ways to get around this annoy­ing fact. First, Nord­gren encour­ages char­ac­ter­iz­ing an idea not as a ben­e­fit, but rather as a poten­tial missed oppor­tu­ni­ty. Because we tend to feel the pain of a loss more deeply than the plea­sure of a gain, we are more like­ly to embrace some­thing if we think it will help us avoid miss­ing out. 

Humans tend to see the world in rel­a­tive terms; thus, it is also help­ful to give poten­tial con­sumers points of com­par­i­son — even if some of them are decoys. For exam­ple, the prici­est dish on a menu tends to dri­ve din­ers’ atten­tion to the sec­ond-prici­est (which might have a bet­ter prof­it mar­gin). You want to present peo­ple with legit­i­mate alter­na­tives,” Nord­gren says. But the point, of course, is to draw most atten­tion to the idea you want to pursue.” 

We are also wired to val­ue some­thing more once it is actu­al­ly in our pos­ses­sion. That’s why, for exam­ple, cable chan­nels like to give con­sumers a few months of free ser­vice — because we are more like­ly to val­ue that chan­nel, and pay for it, than we would otherwise. 

Final­ly, con­cen­trate on win­ning over a crit­i­cal mass of con­sumers, Nord­gren says. The idea is to take advan­tage of some­thing called social proof,” which is the ten­den­cy for peo­ple to imi­tate the behav­ior of the peo­ple around them. Think of a piano play­er at a hotel, who strate­gi­cal­ly sticks high-val­ue bills in her tip jar before she starts play­ing, so would-be tip­pers know what the desired norm is. 

Of course, get­ting that crit­i­cal mass requires patience. So look for easy wins first. Nord­gren advis­es: You want to be able to go to the key stake­hold­er and say, four of the five direc­tors have approved this,’ or, we’ve suc­cess­ful­ly test­ed an ear­ly version.’” 

Featured Faculty

Benjamin F. Jones

Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI)

Mark McCareins

Clinical Professor of Business Law

Brian Eng

Adjunct Lecturer of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Jeffrey Cohen

Member of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship faculty until 2018

Bryony Reich

Assistant Professor of Strategy

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.

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