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The Face of Innovation: What Does an Innovator Look Like?

Innovation times

Posted by JR Reagan on March 13, 2013

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If I ask you to picture an innovator, what’s the first image that comes to mind? A mad scientist in a Frankenstein-like lab? An aspiring entrepreneur in his college dorm room?

A passion to innovate can be found in laboratories, in corporate boardrooms, and at elite universities. It’s found among geniuses and savants, in executives and college professors.

But a passion to innovate also lives within our youngest children, whose creativity and sense of wonder allows them to dream the impossible. Innovation drives high-school students and young activists who want to make the world a better place. It also springs out of the patience and experience gained only through a long life.

In places that don’t even have running water or electricity, innovators see hope…and fuel solutions. In places where the literacy rate of women is below 50%, mothers can become the agents for change.

Innovation has no borders. It has no age, gender, color, creed, or nationality.


Thomas Edison said “The greatest invention in the world in the mind of a child.” Scientific studies have proven him correct. In an interview, Hal Gregersen explained one of the findings from an eight-year study that led to The Innovator’s DNA, a book he coauthored with Jeff Dyer and Clayton M. Christensen:

If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions.

Youth doesn’t hinder innovation. It encourages it. And some kids keep asking “why” and “how,” even after school teaches them to stop asking silly questions.

Two sisters—ages eight and nine—received a patent for “The Wigwarm,” a solar teepee they invented for a science fair. Another eight-year-old girl, after watching her father place cooked bacon on paper towels to absorb the fat, dreamed up a rack where bacon could drip dry…and designed it with her dad. Popsicles were invented by an 11-year-old boy shortly after the turn of the last century.

Teenagers find the facts of life

Teenagers can’t vote, they can’t drink, and most have curfews they think are unreasonable. Though their inventions and innovations cross every industry, the teens have at least one thing in common: they started innovating at an early age, and the bug stuck with them.

Now they dream big. They’re finding innovative ways to diagnose and treat cancer, use ocean vents generate more energy than a nuclear power plant, and meet the needs of farmers in developing countries. Hardly your average science-fair volcano project.

17-year-old Shree Bose took first place overall for her research on how to counteract drug-resistant ovarian cancer cells.

Philip Streich, an 18-year-old from Wisconsin, is a top high-school innovator, winning more than $200,000 for his work in the field of nanotechnology. He came up with a solution to isolate carbon nanotubes…a problem that had stumped scientists for years. He’s also launched his own company, and has five patents in the works.

The modern snowmobile can trace its roots to another teen. At the age of 15, Joseph Bombadier added sleigh frames and a propeller to a Model T Ford. He eventually founded the first snowmobile company in the world, and became a legend in his native Canada.

Global innovators

“In Africa, 60 percent of the population is under 25,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her welcoming address to participants in The Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership on June 13, 2012. “And we think success will depend upon whether or not the youth of Africa, like many places around the world, have a chance to contribute to their own countries.”

Part of a multi-year collaboration between the U.S. and Africa, the event brought young African innovators to U.S. cities for two-week business internships. Participants included an investigative journalist, the CEO of a mobile development company, a shoemaker, a book publisher, and other leaders in the Sub-Sahara region.

Across the globe, innovators are devising unique solutions that help their communities.

In Bangalore, Anirudh Sharma invented haptic shoes that vibrate to help the visually impaired find their way around safely, incorporating low-cost parts, cell phones, GPS and online turn-by-turn directions.

In Kenya, farmer Su Kahumbu created the unexpected—a phone app for cows. iCow helps farmers keep their herds healthy, and in turn, helps the farmers prosper.

Innovation for life

Over the last 100 years, “The average age at which individuals produce notable inventions and ideas has increased steadily.”

So says Benjamin F. Jones in Age and Great Invention (2008). He examined Nobel Prize winners and other great innovators and achievers. One of his most interesting findings? The age at which great achievements occur is rising by 5 to 6 years each century. Jones provides a number of reasons why this trend could be occurring. One of them is simple demographics.

According to the AARP, 100 million people in the America are aged 50 and over, and 10,000 people will celebrate their 50th birthdays each day for the next three years.

Many of them count themselves as innovators. According to the executive director of The United Inventors Association of America, some 60% of its members are over the age of 50. Their experience and knowledge, along with persistence and patience, help the older set remain in the innovation loop.

Henry Ford was 45 when he made the Model T, and 60 when his cars rolled off the first assembly line. Many of Steve Jobs’ most innovative products didn’t hit the market until he was in his 40s.

Some older innovators address needs they wouldn’t have known about when they were younger. Quicksnip, a product that helps seniors who fumble with frustrating packaging, was invented by an octogenarian.

At what age does innovation slow down, or stop? It just doesn’t, for some.

So what exactly does an innovator look like?

See your neighbor tinkering in his garage? He’s one. Your niece, who asks “why” or “how” for the umpteenth time? She’s one. The clerk at the hardware store who listens as you explain your problem, then picks out parts from four different aisles? He’s one. Look in the mirror. You’re an innovator, too.


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