The Business of Invention

In a world dominated by the information economy, it’s perhaps easy to assume that ‘unicorns’ (businesses that achieve that elusive billion dollar valuation) can only be found in the realm of apps, software and platforms.

The truth however, is that the economy of things (engineering, manufacturing and production) is very much alive and kicking. From aerospace to biotechnology and from consumer goods to electronics, the spirit of invention is being empowered by technology to create incredible success stories.

Is Invention Entrepreneurship?

Being an entrepreneur, an inventor, is about having ideas and having the doggedness to see them through…” Sir James Dyson told me “As an inventor your ideas should be based on creating a solution to a problem – a solution which focuses on function over form. Solving problems has been my life’s work, from my first job working with my mentor Jeremy Fry to founding Dyson.”

Much like the majority of great business app ideas (for example), Sir James was met with much resistance, “When I started to develop the world’s first bag-less vacuum cleaner, I knew my idea was solving a fundamental problem. Unsurprisingly other major vacuum cleaner manufacturers did not agree. But I persevered, against the odds, developing the technology and manufacturing it under my own name. This is a trait all entrepreneurs need – the ability to remain committed to your idea and the drive to see it through to fruition. Perhaps it stems from a desire to be competitive. I have always enjoyed long distance running, reaching the pain barrier and driving through it.

For Dyson, this approach paid off. In just over 20 years, the company bearing his name grew from start-up to annual revenues of over £1.3bn, with James personally being ranked as one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs, worth over £3bn.

Invention is risky, but it can change everything…

One of the greatest engines for entrepreneurial growth in the recent two decades has been the ubiquity of powerful computing technologies, significantly reducing the prototyping costs for most industries, and allowing entrepreneurs to take risks. “Inventors shouldn’t be afraid to take risks,” Dyson told me. “They should embrace failure and learn from their mistakes. I created 5,127 prototypes of the first Dyson bag-less vacuum cleaner and only the last one was right! Not being afraid to fail is something I think all successful entrepreneurs have in common.”

Many engineering and manufacturing businesses I see still adopt this principle, going through hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of product iterations before arriving at a version they take to market. Technologies such as advanced CAD and simulation, together with the relentless advance of 3D printing have meant that this is now easier than ever, allowing entrepreneurs to create disruptive innovations.

Unique to the manufacturing and engineering world, versus the traditional technology economy, is the timescale over which business models survive and thrive. These business, once commercialized, require factories, machinery, research labs and more; significant long-term investments. As Sir James told me, “At Dyson our philosophy has always been to invest in the long term. To power our 25 year pipeline of technology we have just announced a further £1.5 billion investment into new research and development on top of our current spending of £3 million a week. You cannot create disruptive technology without investing heavily in the long term.”

Long-term perspectives are important, the most successful companies in the world; Tesla, Apple, Facebook Google and Amazon for example, disrupt over the long-term and put invention right at the heart of their operations, giving it significant resource and support. Over the years, many of the most successful enterprises I have worked with have followed this approach and built their businesses around a core that looks to innovate and invent their future. Even industries where traditionally this hasn’t been the case (such as professional services) are now looking at innovation based business models.

Dyson also contends that engineers and inventors are those who will truly change the world, telling me “Transport, natural disasters, the distribution of resources, globalisation – engineers and inventors have the traits and skillset to solve the problems the world faces today. And therefore have the potential to impact the world and economy. The economy can be boosted by exporting tangible technology that is in global demand. This is the hands of engineers.”

Don’t be an entrepreneur…..

Something I’ve seen over and over again through my career has been the fact that the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have rarely wanted to be entrepreneurs, the vast majority- in fact- have been individuals with tremendous passion for an idea.

I asked Dyson what his advice would be for people looking to follow in his footsteps: “Don’t aspire to be an entrepreneur.” He told me, “Aspire to create something that solves a problem. My message to young people with an idea is build a prototype and test it. Test it again and again, making the changes, learning from failure. Don’t be afraid to go it alone. When I first created dual cyclone technology I tried to license my technology to major manufactures and got nowhere. Sometimes you have to be brave and jump in at the deep end but the rewards for creating disruptive technology that really works are truly amazing.”

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.