The Business of Ideas: Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary

Evolution, courtesy of Pexels.

Developing your intellectual property into a viable business opportunity is a complex proposition! In this series of posts, Porticos co-founder and President, Greg Patterson shares his insights on navigating the process. First written ten years ago, these posts revisit (and update) Greg’s original content for a new decade of product development.

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As we’ve considered how to make a Business of Ideas I’ve commented a few times on the difference between “evolutionary” versus “revolutionary” ideas. This is an interesting criterion by which a lot of inventors probably critique their ideas, whether they mean to or not. Oftentimes an inventor will discard evolutionary ideas as having little value in the grand scheme of things.

I will confess that I cannot say that I’ve ever had what I consider a “revolutionary” idea. This fact tends to disappoint me from time to time. But in doing some research for this section, I feel that perhaps my standards are too high. Considering the topic of building a Business of Ideas, does success rely on a revolutionary idea? Are they really the only ideas that yield the proverbial “pot of gold” at the end of the invention rainbow?

Revolutionary moments are rare, and rarer still are the individuals who can somehow channel their minds into areas not previously explored. But is that really true?

When I consider the definitions of evolutionary or revolutionary, I would say that they are fairly consistent with my basic philosophy. Evolution, according to an internet dictionary, is defined as a “process in which something passes by degrees to a different stage.” Hence the “Theory of Evolution” where supposedly man has evolved over eons from lesser organisms that have struggled to adapt to changing conditions. Compare that to the definition of revolutionary: a complete or dramatic change. Revolutionary moments are rare, and rarer still are the individuals who can somehow channel their minds into areas not previously explored. But is that really true?

Who comes to your mind when you think of revolutionary ideas? Albert Einstein and his Theory of Relativity? Sir Isaac Newton and his Theory of Gravity? How about the Wright brothers and powered, human-controlled flight? All of these are examples of innovative thinkers and their ideas “revolutionized” aspects of civilized life. But were the ideas themselves revolutionary or evolutionary?

Let’s consider air travel since it is something that many of us are impacted by and it’s pretty darn cool too!

It was not too long ago that jet engines were nothing more than curiosities, burping and farting hot gases in the lab. Frank Whittle, applied for a patent on his jet engine in 1930. Meanwhile, Hans Von Ohain was working independently and in parallel (another fine example of our Six-Month Rule); his engine is credited with supporting the first jet plane flight in 1935. While both men came up the similar ideas at the same time, both might be considered as having a “revolutionary” idea.

I believe that these and any other ideas I’ve seen or read about over history were really evolutionary, not revolutionary. In this example, centrifugal compressors were not unheard of, rather they were already in use as superchargers on piston engines. Deriving power from the expansion associated with the combustion of superheated gases was likewise not revolutionary. The piston engine had been in use for years by this time and before gas pistons, there were steam engines. Steam engines themselves evolved over time from the 1712 “Atmospheric Engine” of Thomas Newcomen to the high-pressure “Cornish” engine of Olivar Evans and Richard Trevithick. But even this was preceded by other inventors all the way down to King Heron in first-century Egypt whose “Aelopile” (essentially a steam-driven jet engine) was opening temple doors.

Light transfer of energy, courtesy of Pexels.

I’m not arguing that any of these examples, from the steam engine’s role in the industrial revolution to the jet engine’s role in the historic rise of manned flight, did not have drastic and far-reaching effects on the ways of thinking and behaving (i.e., the definition of revolutionary). But the process by which these ideas were developed was much more evolutionary than at first glance. Even inventors like Newton or da Vinci, though they did not have throngs of text or research to guide their theories on gravity or flight, had nature all around them. Couple that with an innate curiosity and strong powers of observation and you have the basis for their ideas.

Unless you have been born in a cave and never allowed contact with the outside world, your ideas are bound to be impacted or somehow guided by what you see around you and the experiences you have had. Don’t discount your evolutionary ideas as unimportant. Who knows when one of those might be the next idea to revolutionize our world!

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Porticos, Inc. is a Product Engineering and New Product Development firm located in Research Triangle Park, NC.

Established in 2003, Porticos produces innovative and effective solutions for their clients and the markets they serve. Porticos provides broad expertise in development, planning, and production. 

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