Innovation Asset Blog

Innovation Trends: Human Convenience vs. Human Impact

These are interesting times for developments and investments in emerging tech sectors. Ford invested $1 billion in Argo AI, and Fiat Chrysler teamed up with BMW and Intel in the race for the driverless car market. Facebook filed for a patent to make augmented reality glasses, putting it in competition with Microsoft’s Hololens and Snapchat’s Spectacles. The limits of cloud computing are beginning to emerge while the uses for 3D printing continue to grow each day to fabricate items like clothing or home construction materials. Genomics firms are suing each other over patents covering the sale of DNA analysis machines. In the Bay Area, The Mercury News reports that California is the leader in green tech but that the strong economy is  putting more emissions in the air due to commuters – creating yet more challenges and opportunities.

With a growing cornucopia of technology and issues to be solved, it’s difficult to keep track of. From a “trend” standpoint, today’s top patent fields include:

  • Genomics;
  • 3d printing;
  • Cloud computing;
  • Renewable energy;
  • Autonomous vehicles; and
  • Augmented reality.

Anecdotally it looks like major innovation is happening in categories that might be called “human convenience” and “human impact.” Perhaps some of them overlap.

In terms of human convenience, it’s interesting to note that 4 of the top 5 U.S. startups by value occupy this category:

  1. Uber (ground transportation/ride sharing)
  2. Airbnb (temp housing & travel experience)
  3. WeWork (incubator office space for startups)
  4. Pinterest (creative ideas)

Uber was conceived as pure pomp and convenience. The founding impulse was the prestige of a customized ride and being picked up in a nice car. The company quickly grew to what was widely assumed to be a $68B valuation. Notwithstanding the company’s trials and tribulations, there is little doubt that, even though no one is completely certain what Uber's stock is currently worth, it remains formidable.

The temporary housing and travel experience market, led by Airbnb, is also convenience-driven. This company is worth $31 billion. Some of Airbnb’s recent activities definitely have a human impact, such as its offer of free housing for displaced Hurricane Harvey victims, but overall the platform offers the convenience of relatively cheap and easy-to-book travel lodgings.

Pinterest bills itself as the “the world’s catalog of ideas.” “Pinning” things of interest on a public site, that others may be inspired, was the brainchild of Ben Silbermann. The concept of publically sharing inspired ideas may be simple enough, but it was evidently unique enough to have grown from 5,000 users in 2010 to twelve million users in less than two years.  The company is now worth about $12.3 billion.

WeWork provides collaborative and temporary business space. It’s a modern-day incubation environment for start-ups or alternative workspace for anyone. It was conceived as a place where networking can freely occur, modern architectural and design amenities abound, and supporting infrastructure such as security, office equipment and furniture are included. The model seems to be working well, with the company valued at about $21 billion.

Human impact innovation takes many forms, and involves large-scale, broadleaf thinking. Sometimes it is creativity in the financial sector, and sometimes it is the audacity to envision radical new solutions.  Two examples:

Equilibrium is an asset management firm at the center of the “impact investment” movement. They are driving changes in attitude by large-scale institutional investors about the effectiveness (and even fiduciary duties) of investing in sustainable “real assets.” They deeply research trends and long-term return potential in the areas of agriculture, water & waste, and renewable energy – most of which are driven by significant emerging technologies and intellectual property. The firm not only creates investment “products” but also operates them in conjunction with experts on the ground. Equilibrium’s sustainability strategies are attracting significant attention for their focus on scale, long-term value, risk economics, and social & environmental impact.

By now most people have heard of Elon Musk, founder of such companies as space technology firm SpaceX, and Tesla – maker of electric cars, power storage and solar panels. As the story goes, he grew so tired of waiting in traffic in Los Angeles that he conceived a potential solution. Not just a “solution,” but a revolutionary approach to urban transportation congestion. The idea?  Create an underground tunnel system.  Perhaps that day, Musk was yearning for a more convenient way to get around LA, but he has taken steps in furtherance of a radical idea that could have vast economic, environmental and human impact.

Whether focused on making a major impact on humanity or providing a valuable convenience, there is no doubt that well-executed innovation is a key driver. Of fundamental importance is the protection and management of the resultant intellectual property. For more information on that topic, download this free white paper in Diligent Intellectual Property Management for Business Success: 

Download Now

Peter Ackerman

Peter Ackerman

Founder & CEO, Innovation Asset Group, Inc.