What it takes for an invention idea to achieve commercial success

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1940s Hollywood darling Hedy Lamarr was best known for starring alongside James Stewart and Judy Garland in films such as Come Live with Me (1941) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941). But more recently, the light has been cast on her work as a brilliant inventor, which had been overshadowed by scandals and the glitz and glamor of celebrity life at the height of her career as an actress.

During World War II, Lamarr’s desire to help the military come up with a secure communication system led to the invention of a radio guidance system using frequency-hopping technology, making American radio-guided weapons more resilient to detection and jamming. At the time, many doubted Lamarr’s legitimacy as an inventor, even accusing her of stealing the idea from her husband, munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl.

Although her invention was first rejected by the U.S. Navy, it was later used by the military during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Her invention serves as the basis for today’s wireless communications that is now used by billions around the world, particularly the technology we know today as Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth.

As far as great invention ideas go, they can come from the most unsuspecting of personalities and do not guarantee immediate commercial viability. Against The Grain author Graham Harris, who has utilized over 80 patents and successfully brought to market hundreds of unique print-related products, wrote, “Experts estimate that only one out of every five thousand inventions undergo successful product launches to the extent they result in a good return for their inventor.”

According to Harris, successful inventors are those that “form the best habits, to keep them on track and disciplined.” One habit Harris mentions is persistence, which helps an inventor to push through barriers and seek out continuous improvements to his own design or an existing one, to make the invention a commercial success. Commitment and dedication are key, but inventors must also take time to develop other crucial skills, including resource management and product design.

The conceptualization of the idea itself – albeit crucial – only makes up a small part of the entire process of getting the product out to market and making it a commercial success. Occasionally, even those with less interesting invention ideas can come up with commercially successful products after diligently following through a rigorous refinement process.

Inventor Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Many commercially successful inventions, like the radio, the car, the airplane, or the iPhone are a combination of technological innovations or an improvement of the existing solution. The famous Thomas Edison, known for inventing the light bulb we know today, actually improved designs and replaced materials from previous electric lighting devices that weren’t efficient, didn’t last long or was too bright, to the point of commercial viability.

Today, we see many different types of lights such as fluorescent, LED, halogen, and neon. In fact, the invention of Light Emitting Diode (LED) by Nick Holonyak, Jr. in the 60s was somewhat unintentional. He simply discovered it while trying to create a visible semiconductor laser. It took 50 years for LED to replace incandescent light bulbs that were the norm at the time of LED’s invention. From small indicator lights on electrical equipment, its use expanded to IBM circuit boards, to digital watches of the 1970s, traffic lights and in brake lights by the 80s, and now, LED TV.

Similarly, the television we know today is a culmination of other people’s inventions. In the early days, there were mechanical TVs, which rely on mechanical scanning devices. In 1927, Philo Farnsworth successfully created the first all-electronic television, by combining the developments of the cathode ray tube with image-scanning using electrons. However, it’s said that Farnsworth never reaped the financial benefits of his discovery. It wasn’t until 1951 that cost-effective production allowed TV sales to go from a few thousand to almost 100 million in a decade.

It’s worth noting that a great number of inventions lose commercial viability during the manufacturing, testing, or even the marketing process. Many factors contribute to the success or failure of an invention, namely the need for that product and how much buyers are willing to pay for it. Even if an inventor has a noble social cause in mind, patent fees, wages and daily operation costs can amount to great financial burden. Only when its intended consumers are able and willing to pay to obtain the invention can it become genuinely successful. As proven by the case of the TV, commercial success can come at a much later date.

Thus, it’s recommended that inventors take time to record their ideas and developments concerning the invention. Even if there are similar ideas in the market that solve the same problem, studying the concept of existing solutions and improving on them can lead to the product having a mass appeal. During the process of seeking investors, clients and collaborators, it’s also important to ensure that the invention idea is protected from theft through legal frameworks like patents, copyrights and trademarks.

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