The Business Times

Invention & innovation

The focus needs to go from novel technologies to novel business models.

Published Wed, Oct 15, 2014 · 09:50 PM

THOMAS Edison, one of the greatest inventors ever to have lived, is best known for inventing a long-lasting, practical electric electric bulb. And although the value of this invention is undeniable, we don't consider it to be Edison's biggest invention. In fact, there were at least 22 inventors of bulbs prior to Edison, yet it was his version of the device that has been widely adopted.

At the time of inventing the light bulb, there was no easy way to procure electricity, so all other lamp designs remained a curious novelty. What Edison did differently was to create an integrated system that included an electrical generator, an electricity distribution system, a system to measure consumption and a payment arrangement. The electrical lamp was just one piece of the puzzle, whereas providing an entire business model around electric bulbs was far more important.

The example of the light bulb is very typical: when we think of innovations, we tend to imagine novel technologies and products, often forgetting about business models that enable their adoption. For instance, most companies have large, well-funded R&D departments, full of highly-educated engineers tasked with the jobs of "innovating". But you would be hard-pressed to find a company that has a business-model innovation department, or a company that regularly goes through the process of re-evaluating its own business model.

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