Entrepreneurs and innovators succeed when they work effectively together

Mark Henderson
September 20, 2017

There has been a tendency in recent policy papers to argue that a focus on entrepreneurship is the answer to Canada’s weak innovation performance.  There is no academic study to back this assertion and if interested parties pursue this myth, it will inevitably lead to confusion. Not only do entrepreneurship skills not equate to innovator skills, but rather entrepreneurs often rely on innovators to successfully carry out their projects.

In order to avoid polemics, let’s define the terms. Entrepreneurs are an important element in the development of business ideas.  Without Steve Jobs, Apple would not likely have emerged as a major force in the personal computer/cell phone industry.  Entrepreneurs avidly seek success, are able to recognize the potential of an idea, a concept or a nascent technology and have the stamina and determination to realize this potential.  Such skills are attuned to and respond to a rapidly changing market.

Entrepreneurship is taught in programs such as HBAs or MBAs and more recently in some engineering programs.  Not all graduates will necessarily become entrepreneurs, but the skills and tool kits acquired will be instrumental to potential success.  On the other hand, some may argue that, like Obelix, you have to be born in the magic potion, that entrepreneurial skills cannot be easily acquired, nor taught, but are inborn.  However, the perfect entrepreneur, as a cliché, is the kid who has made it from scratch and has both the inherent talent and the stamina as the key to success.

As a result, there are schools that believe entrepreneurship cannot be learned, and others that fundamentally believe the virus can be inseminated, as long as a role model is present as a reference, a winning idea is available and the timing is favourable.  The latter can be termed as luck, but it is more a skill in recognizing an opportunity and in acting quickly and relentlessly towards its implementation.

Entrepreneurs are not necessarily highly trained or educated, nor do they have to be technologically inclined. They tend to be passionate when they have identified the right opportunity and obstinate as they pursue it.

Where do they get their unique ideas?

This is where the natural synergy occurs between the entrepreneur and the innovator. The innovator or the creator has assembled a unique solution, perhaps just at the idea stage. The innovator alone would have difficulty bringing his or her unique solution to market and needs the skills and business acumen of an entrepreneur who, in turn, would not be able to expand in new markets without the new ideas generated and developed by the innovator. And these two types of talent are in fact complementary.

The realm of opportunities for entrepreneurs lies in the vast repertoire of the inventors or creators.  This is where research becomes a source of potential applications.  Technology development, social innovation, creative concepts or artistic realizations all find their source in an innovative mind. Then ground-breaking applications responding to, or in search of, a market opportunity can be pursued.  But without such ingenuity humankind would not have been able to go on the moon or to operate a space station!  Without Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs would likely not have been able to launch the first Apple success, a very basic computer with a monochrome screen.  So without Steve Wozniak’s innovative mind, Steve Jobs may not have achieved his huge success as an entrepreneur.

Clayton Christensen, in his book, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, pushes the argument of market drive as the reason most established, well-managed large companies such as HP, IBM or Sears have lost their market lead over time to aggressive newcomers who have ridden on technological leap-frogging.  Christensen argues that market research based on listening to client needs and a multitude of surveys does not generally permit the potential offered by disruptive technologies to be anticipated. Yet disruptive technologies or concepts are the ones that lead to new and uncharted markets.  Early adopters are their first customers, but the lead they exert is then a source of marketing strength and market disruption. Failure may be part of the journey but it is also a necessary risk along the way. Perhaps as suggested, failure is an important ingredient before success.

So, contrary to the commonly-held script, entrepreneurship without creativity or new ideas leads nowhere.  If so, where lies the key to success? Why is entrepreneurship so popular? And why don’t we pay more attention to linking entrepreneurship to the product of innovative minds?

There is also a spatial dimension to entrepreneurship success: timeliness and location.  It has been witnessed again and again that a successful entrepreneur may not always be successful in a second endeavour, proving that entrepreneurship qualities alone are not sufficient. Other ingredients of success, often referred to as luck, are likely tied to market readiness which is different from country to country, and is not necessarily related to entrepreneurial savvy.  This implies that entrepreneurs need the technological or societal innovation savvy to access the potential of their product.  As a result, they need innovators.

So while we need entrepreneurs and should encourage the nurturing of such talents early in schooling programs (much before university level), it is imperative also to favour innovators — a rare species — as they bring an important dose of creativity to the table and provide the raw material to entrepreneurs.  An innovator’s motivation is to make a positive contribution to sciences or to applied new concepts while an entrepreneur’s motivation includes a successful product launch that meets customer demand. One complements the other.

One of the ways to optimize entrepreneurial success is through coaching provided through incubators and accelerators.  Despite mixed user reviews as to the performance of accelerators, their net effect has been to improve start-up quality. No start-up succeeds without an innovative spirit and no entrepreneur either. So the combination appears to be the winning formula. In this respect, bringing together business and engineering schools may be a step in the right direction. While this type of union may appear obvious, its implementation is not necessarily straightforward, given the stereotypes of these professions evolving in rather separate ways. My recommendation is that more innovative and disruptive education models could bring these two skill sets together.

Alexandre Navarre, PhD, MBA, is Vice Président of Numinor  Conseil Inc

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