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Q&A: Defining disruptive innovation – Part 1

Article-Q&A: Defining disruptive innovation – Part 1

'Innovation' is a word thrown around in any industry relating to new ideas, science and solutions. Although key to transformation and progression, there is a need to separate clearly define what innovating means, and how it differs to ideation.

In an article by Greg Satell, innovation author, he outlines the long process of discovery, enjoying success, having success run its course, and once again starting the cycle of transformation. Additioanlly, it's not enough to simply have a good idea—innovation needs to be built on the foundation of problem solving, serving as a key catalyst for change. Often, innovation is ahead of its time. Product developers have to be considerate of the true time it takes to vet an idea, gain buy-in, find momentum in the market, and engineer toward impact. In this Q&A, Vitafoods Insights speaks to Julia Wiebe, director of research and development at Nektium, about disruptive innovation and how it relates to our world of health and nutrition. 

What defines innovation and how is it different to invention

This is an important difference. Inventions are something new, or something we haven’t seen before. But that doesn’t mean the invention is turned into a product and makes its way to market. It can take years for an invention to be commercialised and some never are. Therefore, an invention needs to align with a clear consumer or customer desire, and importantly, the full lifecycle of the product must be economically and technically viable. We could say that the combination of invention and market need results in innovation. It usually needs an astute entrepreneur who acts as a facilitator who detects or creates the desire. Most innovations are not fundamentally new inventions, but rather existing products that visionary entrepreneurs present to consumers in a new way so that they now desire something they may not have been interested in previously. Case in point, the revolutionary iPad—a piece of technology that didn't necessarily meet an existing consumer need but attracted significant interest from excited consumers. The possibility to innovate can be the result of unexpected events, the consequence of improved process improvement, or changes in market, demographic or perception. Even a health crisis like the present COVID-19 pandemic can be a catalyst for innovation in vaccines, diagnostics, treatments and monitoring applications.

How should companies align human resources with innovation? 

Innovation capacity and creativity are the most powerful competitive advantages a business can have, and they must be considered as capacities needed throughout the organisation—not only within R&D for new product development. Innovative companies need creative leaders, who are equally business and 'artistically' inclined. Such leaders need the ability to 'break' the valid industry logic—stimulating and supporting innovation in a strategic manner throughout the organisation and recognising it as a permanent function of a successful company. Companies who seek the foreforont need to invest in self-motivated, proactive employees with a mindset that is able to identify unexpected connections and opportunities. These employees are sometimes referred to as 'intrapreneurs.'

Perhaps the problem starts at a primary stage of human thinking. There is scrutiny around whether school systems were and are designed to foster creativity, and if this leads people to be challenged in their creative thinking later in life.

Design thinking is focused on understanding and rapidly addressing changes in users’ environments and behaviour, bringing together what is desirable from the consumer and combining that with technologically feasible and economically viable solutions.

Ultimately, pioneer companies have to try function as an ambidextrous organisation that does two things simultaneously: look back to answer today's customers’ needs through improved products or processes, and thereby exploit the existing model; and look forward to explore future solutions, identifying promising technology, market or even business models, as well as which new knowledge or capacities will define the future.


To improve the company’s performance and ensure long-term survival, there is a need to balance exploitation and exploration—a balancing act at which few companies succeed. 

How can companies analyse competitor innovation? 

This is of course difficult and also where intellectual property protection and patenting comes in. The challenge still remains as even if someone has come up with a new idea and has filed a patent application, the application is not visible online for the first 18 months after filing. Even if a company holds a patent for an invention, someone else can have a related patent that blocks an aspect of theirs, opening up infringement complications related to claims. This can become an expensive issue, so before putting a product on the market, companies should carry out a 'Freedom to Operate' analysis, which is a patent review to assess the path to market or if there is need to negotiate with other patent holders.

In Part 2 of this Q&A series, we investigate innovation at scale and the role of IP protection.