Lost Edisons

One of the things I enjoy about Lead Read Today is its emphasis on data and scholarship.

As a trained engineer who, late in life, backed into the entrepreneurship and business world, my initial instinct is also to be data-driven rather than to follow my intuition, the market or the next “shiny object.” I think this is important.

I recall an interesting concept illuminated in the influential (and also deeply data-driven) management book Good to Great by Jim Collins. It’s that non-charismatic CEOs were actually more effective at running their organizations than charismatic CEOs. This is because people will follow a charismatic CEO regardless of whether their strategy is correct or not; but people will follow a more staid CEO because that CEO got the strategy right — most likely because they were informed by data.

But data is hard to come by in the “innovation” world — in which I’ve found myself for the last 11 years. (Heck, it’s a challenge simply to define the word). Thankfully, there have been some very interesting studies published recently in this regard.

In 2017, the New York Times published an article titled “The Lost Einsteins”, referenced by the MIT Sloan Management School, where they identified an “innovation gap” (defined as a patents gap) among students who were born to wealthy parents vs. the rest of the student population. They identified that if women and minorities innovated at the same rates as wealthy males, then we could quadruple the number of patents we were creating in the United States.

That’s a lot of innovation, a lot of progress and a lot of value.  From the Equality of Opportunity Project, the researchers identified large disparities in innovation rates by socioeconomic class, race and gender — but that exposure to innovation substantially increases the chances that children become inventors later in life.

Although I regularly teach kids technology, creativity and innovation, I don’t consider myself an educator. (I’m more of a “skills Sherpa” — I can show you some cool stuff and then point the way that you can take yourself there).  However, I do work regularly with adults who are striving to bring an innovation to life. So I was curious if there was an analog for adult innovators.

Instead of lost Einsteins at an early age, are there lost Edisons at a later age? If so, can we help find more?

I decided to measure “innovation” as a patent, and I wanted to know where most of our patents are coming from. I looked at the USPTO data from 2013 (the last year that I could easily find cross-comparable data) and found that, in 2013, the total number of utility patents filed for by the top 100 largest universities around the world (not just the US) was 5,816.

The number of utility patents filed by the top 100 largest corporations in the world (again, not just the U.S.) was 108,000. However, the number of patents filed by independent, grassroots inventors in the U.S. alone was 18,614. That’s about three times as many as were created by universities and about 15 percent (a significant fraction) of global corporations.

This is a big number (and even bigger when you extrapolate it to all global grassroots inventors). And whereas most university patents may take years to never to reach the market (although when they do, they make huge impact), and whereas many corporate patents may be market driven, not need driven, I suspect that most of the independent inventors’ patents were need driven.

(Here I differentiate between “need” driven and “market” driven as follows — “market driven” means that there is a market which will pay for that invention — even if it’s not terribly socially valuable, such as many as-seen-on-TV products.  “Need-driven” suggests that there is a real social need for the invention, but there may not be an existing market to motivate its research and development — like the Gravity Light which helps people without electricity to read at night).

I submit that empowering people to bring more need-based inventions to reality will realize greater social impact.

Thus, over the last few years I’ve been wondering how the “maker culture” can help find more “lost Edisons” within the world of potential grassroots innovators.

Over the last decade at the Idea Foundry, I’ve seen many people create amazing things that they didn’t know they could produce (from electric motorcycles to improvements for powered wheelchairs). How amazing would it be if every person on the planet who had an idea to improve their life (or that of their family, friends or neighbors) could potentially educate and empower themselves to realize it?

I think a roadmap to this planet of innovators is starting to emerge, and I’d like to start presenting this to the world. I call it 10 Billion Innovators, and I’m grateful that TEDxCincinnati invited me to speak about it last May.

The video is on YouTube. Watch it below.


Let’s see if we can usher in a planet where every person has the potential to become an educated and empowered innovator. The next few decades will bring about a tremendous amount of unpredictable disruption (through automation, robotics, and AI).  We’ll need as many great new ideas as we can find.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.