Eureka moment: Does man or machine drive innovation?
- 10 April 2012
- From the section Business
For entrepreneurial zeal it's hard to beat the moment Archimedes sprang from his bath and charged naked down the street shouting 'Eureka!', leaving the ladies swooning in his wake.
There is a certain purity to this revelation in entrepreneurial terms; here was one man, a bath, some water and a genuine discovery that changed the world.
But can the same be said of entrepreneurialism in this day and age, where ever-prevalent and burgeoning technology impacts on almost everything we do?
Can we still say that innovation is truly driven by the entrepreneur or are eureka moments increasingly only coming about because technology allows them to happen?
Jax Kneppers, himself an entrepreneur and creator of digital inventory platform, Imfuna, sides with the argument that technology is the inspiration behind business innovation.
"I believe that technology is the enabler and entrepreneurs recognise the opportunity that technology provides," he says.
"As technology continues to evolve, new and exciting possibilities are created."
This is a view shared by Mo Jan, founder of data analysis firm Webalytix.
"The development of new technology is often both the inspiration and the catalyst for business advancements," he says.
"An entrepreneur simply spots the possibilities first."
But most entrepreneurs choke on their bath water when presented with this argument.
"Without ideas you have nothing," says Mark Roberts, founder of mobile phone app Cardwolf.
"Technology brings your ideas to life, but you need to have ideas first then you rein them in and mould them around the available tech, adapting as you go."
Elizabeth Varley set up TechHub, a company that provides space for technology entrepreneurs to come together, work and get innovative.
"If you go into any small business the sense of the culture is very driven by the entrepreneur," she says.
"Lots of people can see change, but it is the entrepreneur who is prepared to say 'I have the appetite for the risk, I will put in the time and the money'," she adds.
"Entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. They are all people who want to do things differently."
Even if the technology is there, it doesn't detract from the prime role played by the entrepreneur, says Tom Jordan, managing director of the digital agency Acknowledgement.
"Anyone can have paints, but it takes a talent to assemble those paints into a picture," he says.
"An artist 100 years ago may have been using watercolours, but today they may be using Photoshop."
Archimedes' revelation stemmed from financial considerations - he was trying to work out whether the metal in the king's golden crown had been debased - so let's turn to the money man for advice.
Jos White is co-founder of venture capital firm Notion Capital, and invests anything up to £3m in new start-ups.
"My view is that innovation will always come from the person trying to solve the problem, trying to meet a need in the market," he says.
"A great innovator starts with a blank piece of paper and thinks of different or better ways of doing something," he adds.
"We want to see that spark of innovation at the beginning; how the founder has thought about it differently, why it is different and why what they're doing is better."
And yet 'making something better' pre-supposes there is something there already to drive that innovation, which in terms of this conundrum, would be technology.
Is your brain hurting too?
Branson v Sinclair
Another approach is to look at exactly what we expect from entrepreneurs in order to find a champion in this battle of chicken versus egg.
"It's important to define what we mean by entrepreneurs, inventors and innovators," says Dr Frank Shaw, foresight director at the Centre for Future Studies.
"Entrepreneurs, to my mind, drive innovation in a constrained environment, where there can be limited money or time," he says.
"Their job is not just to bring something to market but to create and maintain an environment that allows innovation to occur.
"For example, Richard Branson is a very good entrepreneur but he is not an innovator or an inventor - on the other hand Clive Sinclair was great at inventing things but absolutely rubbish when it came to take them to market."
That's not to say Dr Shaw discounts the importance of technology.
"Technology redefines the meaning of the word impossible - it makes things possible in a way akin to magic," he says.
"But it is the ability to think and originate concepts or ideas - if you don't have that creative spark you will fail."
One thing that is clear is the relationship between man and machine has changed beyond all recognition since Archimedes' gallop in the buff.
Natalie Gross, chief executive officer at global marketing and technology company, Amaze, points out that anyone in business today needs to have a deep-rooted understanding of technology "both in terms of the impact technology has had and will continue to have on society, and how it can be used in a specific business context".
"Without this insight, even the most talented entrepreneurs will be unable to truly innovate in today's technological driven climate," she says.
Eric van der Kleij is chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, an organisation set up to drive investment into East London's growing technology hub.
He thinks the nature of the relationship between entrepreneur and technology depends on whether the innovator is a problem solver or an opportunist.
"With a problem solver, you can stick them in a dark room and tell them to solve something and they will come up with novel solutions - it comes from deep within," he says.
"An opportunist sees technologies and sees new opportunities that flow from that," he adds.
"The time of the opportunist has come."
Perhaps then it is more healthy to look on this relationship as a partnership.
Richard Tibbetts, co-founder of StreamBase Systems, was named one of the world's top young innovators for 2010 by MIT Technology Review.
He says that while imagination is the source of innovation, technology must drive the timing.
"The best ideas exist long before the technology is mature enough to support them," he says.
"The secret to success is moving at the exact time when technology and the market come together to drive the ideal implementation, experience, and adoption of the entrepreneur's vision."
Without wishing to step too far into the realms of the Terminator, the future might render this whole debate largely obsolete.
The theory of 'singularity' states that one day we will invent technology that has an intelligence far superior to man's.
Dr Shaw says it is "very likely" this will be an emotional entity.
At which point, you have to suppose, technology will start to consider itself entrepreneurial.
Then we will be able to leave it alone to debate with itself: "What drives innovation, the technology as enabler or the technology as entrepreneur?"
That should keep it busy.