How Innovators Come Up With Breakthrough Technologies

If you’ve ever been astounded by the impressive features of your latest high-tech device, you’ve probably wondered how new technology gets brainstormed and (eventually) created. Studying this process can give you a greater appreciation for the key technologies you use on a daily basis and better capabilities for coming up with new ideas of your own.

So how do innovators come up with the breakthrough technologies that change the culture around them?

The Phases of Breakthrough Technology

Let’s start by looking at the crucial steps of the process that lead to a new technology’s development:

  • Science and research. First, in many (but not all) cases, there needs to be some kind of scientific breakthrough. It’s hard to invent a smartphone if touchscreen technology hasn’t been perfected, and it’s hard to invent a cost-effective solar panel if your photovoltaic cells are inherently inefficient.
  • A new idea. Next, someone needs to take that scientific breakthrough and apply it in a way that makes it a novel idea. For example, once researchers and engineers discover a way to provide a VR experience that doesn’t result in motion sickness, someone will need to create and brand a headset that capitalizes on an audience that ordinarily gets motion sickness from these experiences.
  • A business plan. Even a good idea at this stage can fall apart if there’s not a good business plan to ground it. Inventors need an entrepreneurial mindset to figure out how to effectively generate revenue (and a profit), and market to the biggest possible audience. Fortunately, creating a new business these days is easy—so once you have a good idea, you have a good chance of making it successful.
  • Consumer adoption and acceptance. After that, it comes down to timing. Sometimes, a technology will launch too early—before it’s been polished or because consumers aren’t ready for it. If and when that happens, even a good business model can fall apart.

Key Barriers to Overcome

There are, of course, several key barriers that need to be overcome before a new technology is developed:

  • Physical limitations. Sometimes, there are physical limitations that prevent scientific breakthroughs from occurring. For example, there’s a reason why we haven’t seen a major breakthrough in battery technology; we’re still using the same fundamental approach we used decades ago, merely making incremental increases. For similar reasons, Moore’s law may be at its end. Innovators and businesspeople need new information and novel approaches if they’re going to come up with something brilliant.
  • A feasible profitability model. Just because a new idea is interesting, helpful, and feasible to produce doesn’t mean it will result in a profitable business. You’ll have to offer prices that are reasonable, which still provide you a decent return, and find a way to create and distribute products that doesn’t eat into your bottom-line profits. Otherwise, the business will collapse, and the technology could disappear.
  • Competition. Let’s say you have a solid profitability model and a good idea that consumers are taking to. Your innovation might still not survive if it’s improved upon by some other innovator. If a different brand can offer it for cheaper, or offer it with more features, your product’s lifespan will be considerably shortened.
  • Consumer readiness. It’s also hard to predict whether consumers will be truly ready for your innovation. Timing is the hardest factor to perfect, and many innovators end up cursed with the bad luck of being ahead of their time.

What Makes Successful Innovators Different

Whether you’re trying to come up with an invention of your own or you’re just curious about how technology evolves, you might wonder what makes successful innovators different from unsuccessful ones. These are some of their defining qualities:

  • Creativity. True innovators are able to tap into those “eureka” moments that come to you when your mind is inactive. With sufficient awareness of recent scientific breakthroughs or other innovations, you may stumble upon a unique combination, a unique improvement, or a unique mode of packaging that no one else has considered. These breakthrough moments are hard to plan or predict.
  • Differentiation. Next, they find a way to differentiate themselves from others. Innovators tend to come up with ideas around the same time, resulting in multiple similar products emerging on the market at once. Innovators that find a way to be seen as different—with a different value, different price level, or different target audience—tend to win out.  
  • Persistence. Sometimes, even a good innovation can fail due to production issues, company issues, or a flaw in the design. Strong, successful innovators are the ones willing to keep trying even after hitting an obstacle like this; they experiment with new variables, and find a way to improve.

A lot of independent factors need to come together for anyone to come up with a truly novel, breakthrough innovation. But once you know what those factors are, and you pay close attention to them, you can work smarter to bring those factors together for your own applications.

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