June 13, 2010
One way of defining innovation is doing business in a creative way, and not just in terms of launching new products and services. It's also about improving your company's processes so that you add value in the marketplace or compete better. A good example would be adopting just-in-time technology so you can dramatically change how you manage your inventory, or e-procurement so as to speed up the supply process.
When planning an innovation it's important to ensure that your idea adds value for your customers. Think of ideas that improve your responsiveness to customer demands, improve your turnaround time, meet new environmental standards or broaden your reach to new markets. Not every idea will be original, but be sure that your company and your clients see direct benefits from the investment in innovation.
Think prototype first
Once you have an idea, it's time to determine whether your concept or innovation will actually work and deliver what it promises. If sound market research points to a definite need for your product or service, the next step is to test your innovation before it goes into full production or is fully launched.
A commonly used strategy, particularly in product development, is to build a prototype, which is basically a way to test the functioning of your product with a working model. It may not be the final product, but you should strive to make it the next best thing. Seek the expertise of designers and engineers to help you build your prototype. Analyze your prototype thoroughly to see if there are any improvements you might make to it. Once you've solved any problems with your product, you can move to full design.
Testing innovative processes
If you are testing a process—for example, an innovative way to deal with customer complaints—you want to ensure that it works with a targeted group of customers before going all out. This gives you the opportunity to gather data on your process's effectiveness and then make improvements based on real client feedback. Once you've refined the process, you can then do a full launch to your specific target audience.
Testing with a prototype, whether it's a product, service or process, can save you valuable time and resources. It's a wise way to manage your innovation investment and be sure that you're moving in the right direction.
Protect your ideas
A good idea can often be the core of a new business or provide added edge to an existing one. That makes it highly valuable in today's competitive business environment. After all, your intangible assets such as intellectual property are what make your business unique.
A lot of entrepreneurs may worry unnecessarily about safeguarding their innovations. In reality, there are very few original business concepts, and most are merely a tweaking of existing ideas or new ways to do old things. Simple market research and competitive analysis will tell you whether you truly have a new or breakthrough idea. A visit to the appropriate industry-specific trade shows is another good way to see what's out there.
One excellent way to protect a business idea or innovation is to implement it successfully and profitably; success creates its own barrier to entry against competition. Still, success also breeds imitation, and once you have an edge, assume somebody will try to beat you by improving upon your product or service. Stay ahead of the game by considering ongoing improvements as one of your challenges.
If, after conducting the required research, you are convinced that you have something radically new, you could patent it. Processes as well as products can be patented, but to obtain a patent you must prove that your process or product is truly unique, and it is a complex and formal process. In issuing a patent, the government gives the inventor the right to exclude others from making, using or selling your invention from the day the patent is granted to a maximum of 20 years after the day you filed the patent. Patents are generally granted on criteria such as their novelty, utility and ingenuity.
A copyright is different. Copyrights are much easier to obtain but only apply to original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work such as books, plays, songs, paintings or instruction manuals.
The Canadian Copyrights Database allows you to see all copyrights that have been registered or expunged in Canada since October 1, 1991.
Trademarks might be described as being similar to a copyright but shorter. They can apply to words, symbols or designs used to distinguish the wares or services of one person or organization from those of others in the marketplace. Be sure that you distinguish this from a trade name, which is essentially the name under which you conduct your business.
In certain circumstances, a trademark registration may be declared invalid because of prior use of a trade name similar to the registered mark. Ideally, you should conduct a search of existing trade names before filing a trademark application. To ensure a thorough search, you can hire a trademark agent to do the job. A list of agents is available at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. Or you can visit the Canada Business website for an overview of the subject. Alternately, you can talk to your local BDC business centre about consultants who specialize in this area.