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Innovate UK

Defining innovation

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Innovation – more than a word

Used to describe everything from new technology to the transformation of company cultures to sometimes just the downright cool, innovation has become such an over-used word that it sometimes feels like this term has lost its meaning. What is the true definition of innovation? What makes something innovative or has innovation become just a buzzword?

Trying to define innovation

Defining innovation is something a lot of people struggle with. One distinction which I have found helpful when thinking about innovation is differentiating between something which is “new” and that which is “new to me”.

New or just new to me?

The former could be seen to encompass brand new technological innovations, such as graphene.  By contrast, “new to me” innovation encompasses proven technology being applied in new and creative ways. Whilst the technology itself might not be brand spanking new, the application or product is novel.


What came first - the wheel or the suitcase?

My favourite analogy for this distinction was something I first heard a few years ago… and to paraphrase Michael Wolff (of Wolff Olins fame) – the wheel had been around for thousands of years before someone first thought about putting it on a suitcase!

So at some point the invention of the wheel meant we had something totally “new”, whereas its use on suitcases thousands of years late can be considered as “new to me”. Some of the companies we work with are defining innovation through their actions – whether that’s “new” or “new to me”.

PolyPhotonix  - LED sleepmasks to treat blindness

Take a company like PolyPhotonix. Started by Richard Kirk, who started off his professional life as a painter in Paris, and who is now pioneering the early adoption of organic light to treat diabetes-related blindness by manufacturing a sleep mask that treats Diabetic Retinopathy.

The PolyPhotonix sleep mask helps prevent blindness by emitting light into eyes of patients through closed eyelids during normal hours of sleep and has the potential to deliver £1bn worth of savings to the NHS alone for the prevention and treatment of diabetic retinopathy.

By pioneering in the field of organic light and applying this for medical purposes, PolyPhotonix could be seen to embody both “new” and “new to me” innovation.

Buffalo Grid – solar powered chargers

Buffalo Grid was originally launched by Phil Schluter with backing from the Royal College of Art in 2012, received a £190,360 Smart award from Innovate UK to help expand the business.

Buffalo Grid’s innovation “the Hub” is helping rural communities in Africa, South East Asia and the Caribbean by providing a solar paneled portable mobile phone charging unit to provide access to wifi/internet and opportunities to charge phones.

Innovation as an enabler

Often innovation is not just about inventing something radically new, but is about creating the technology which will help foster an environment in which other innovations can practically work.

Innovation is a complex web

Companies like Buffalo Grid and PolyPhotonix show how innovation does not take place in a vacuum but rather is a complex web, each thread of which creates its own new technology demands and plethora of “new” and “new to me” innovations.

You don’t know what you don’t know

There is an old saying “You don’t know, what you don’t know”. Nowhere is this truer than innovation. One innovator could have developed something “new” which is the solution to another person’s problem – if applied in the right way, which might be “new to me”, without knowing.   But how do you know if you never meet them?

It is only when innovators come together from a cross-sector of industry areas that a collusion of ideas and applications can take place. This is when innovation happens.

Innovate 2015 – contributing to defining innovation

It is in this spirit that we will be co-hosting, with UKTI, the world’s biggest innovation event in November, Innovate 2015.

Bringing together innovators, buyers and investors from a cross section of industries, events like this are truly a place for innovators to open their minds to the possibilities of innovating across sectors. If you’re trying to innovate and are not meeting with and sharing ideas with people outside of your area of interest or expertise then you are probably missing a trick.

See you there.

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