Innovation = invention + commercialization.

A couple of years ago, when my friend and colleague Chris Gammill and I were working on creating and then driving IBM‘s brand strategy, we narrowed in on innovation as one of not only IBM’s critical attributes, but also one of the US’s as well, as participants in the National Innovation Initiative that Sam Palmisano sponsored for the Council on Competitiveness.

One of our struggles was why IBM, which perennially leads the world in number of patents, was not seen as an innovator in our brand research, of which we had very, very detailed data. We researched and attended conferences and interviewed experts and debated incessantly, until we finally arrived at this formula. When we realized what we had, I called up the EVP for technology, Nick Donofrio, and said I needed to see him – his frustration with brand data was legendary.

Chris and I, not without a little trepidation, grabbed our material and marched upstairs to his office, where he had pulled in a couple of his key advisors. As we went through the material, his body language told us we had hit on something and, at the end of the meeting, we knew we had succeeded when he told his speech writer to change his talking points for a presentation he would make the following day. After that, he expunged the word ‘invention’ from his lexicon and IBM launched a campaign in 2006, tagged “Innovation that Matters.”

So, as a longstanding student of innovation, I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiration, and as readers of my blog know, I’m a history and news junkie, looking for ways real innovators solve problems and, especially, market their solutions.

Here is one I found today, that is real, and if successful, will result in real productivity gains worldwide. It will resonate with any PC user that has ever experienced that annoying ‘hourglass’ on the screen as they patiently (or not) wait until the system responds and they can accomplish what they bought their PC for in the first place.

Solving a classic computer problem

In “Fighting PC Delays, Hourglass by Hourglass” in today’s NY Times, Anne Eisenberg describes startup Soluto‘s new software, which “runs in the background on PCs, collecting data on delays in program responses and sending the information to company servers for analysis.” Basically, ‘”delays on PCs occur because applications like vendor updates are battling for resources. “When you have 10 of those running in the background,” said Mr. Adler at Soluto, “they add up.”’

In itself, this solution is not something particularly new or innovative – lots of programs monitor PC activities and send information to company servers for analysis. Nor is the company’s use of statistical analysis (sheesh, statistics as a science has been around for centuries…), nor even the use of the ‘crowd’ to collectively solve a problem (Linus Torvalds popularized this approach for Linux). And finally, there is nothing particularly innovative in offering free versions to users, which “will analyze problems and publish solutions.” And to eventually make money, “A premium version that fixes problems automatically will be available for a charge,” again, an existing business model. But the article also describes another company, PC Pitstop, which offers a free startup scan, advice and a commercial solution.

What makes this innovative is not merely the fact that the startup has combined existing approaches to address a real problem, one that people, like myself, would find of real value (read “pay for”).

Says Ed Bott, author of many books about Windows, “The need they’ve identified among users really resonates with me,” he said. “They have a long-range plan to address many issues of frustration. It’s an original and promising approach.”

Even their tagline – “Anti-frustration software” – resonates. Importantly, what makes this truly innovative is the deliberate combination of invention + commercialization.

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