We often hear how the construction industry is unwilling to change, but is that true? Consider that our industry has produced many people with clever ideas. Our people come up with ideas, develop a prototype and may even get a patent. While that seems to be the toughest part, in reality, the next steps are the killers: namely, marketing and distribution. While the inventor may think fame and fortune is right around the corner, that rarely happens—and then we hear the cry that the industry is to blame for not accepting change. These people might be better served to broaden their vision with a look back at history.

Acceptance is Not Instant

Consider two major innovations that shaped the world: television and the icemaker. Philo Farnsworth is generally credited as the inventor of television. However, the road to wide acceptance was anything but smooth, glorious or full of riches for Farnsworth. He had to fight major corporations and struggled for years. He ultimately died frustrated and broke.

In 1844, Dr. John Gorrie invented a machine to make ice. He too fought well-financed competitors. Historically, suppliers furnished and transported large blocks of ice from the north to the south. They stored these large blocks underground until summertime. Dr. Gorrie lived in Florida and wanted to help his patients who suffered from heat in the summer. He made friends with an engineer and together they were able to develop a machine that made ice. 

While it seems a no-brainer for acceptance, the ice shippers were not about to let this new invention take away their livelihoods. They banded together to put out a smear campaign, discrediting the machine based on the fear of refrigeration-related illnesses. Dr. Gorrie fought to make his machine successful and those claims that his apparatus made people sick. Fear can be a powerful motivator. Dr. Gorrie never profited from the invention and few even know he is the real “father” of ice making.

There are countless stories of innovations that have the storyline of the inventor that patents an idea, only to have a major corporation clamp down on them. The corporation may claim the inventor came up with the idea while in the company’s employ (valid point), making the innovation legally theirs. The simple truth is that the corporations with the most money hire top attorneys and usually win. While it may not be fair, it is reality.

The Long Road to Success

If you are an inventor or have a family member who is, it might be best to temper expectations to avoid the same heartbreak seen in countless other inventors.

I have met many people with good ideas. I usually have a feeling that they might spend all their money and years fighting a losing battle. Without substantial capital backing, a supply chain and marketing experts, even a great idea will likely end in frustration.

I came up with a few ideas in my career. I created no prototypes, no formal research or even considered ever filing for a patent. I simply shared my idea with others. One such meeting was with a major U.S. corporation and industry colleagues. I have friends who attended that meeting and clearly remember it was my idea. They seemed annoyed a product based on my concept was brought to market. The same group met later and I informed them I was pleased they found a use for my idea. They quickly claimed the idea was in the works before they met me. My friends expressed displeasure, while I had no issue. In fact, I was pleased to see the product coming to fruition. 

The Risks of Innovation

I have met some very bright people over my career; some with ideas I thought deserved real merit. It seemed the more they pushed to get the product into the mainstream, the more miserable they became. This was typically due to a more forceful pushback from others. In the long run, the end result was ultimately similar to Farnsworth and Gorrie. If you are an inventor or have a family member who is, it might be best to temper expectations to avoid the same heartbreak seen in countless other inventors. 

While everyone wants to be Thomas Edison, we do not live in the time of the Industrial Revolution and truly innovative products are rare in our industry. Launching a new product is not for the faint of heart or those with shallow pockets. Even for big corporations, it is a gamble. 

The last note on innovation is that our industry is pretty well regulated. Most innovations must pass specific code standards to be accepted by designers and code authorities. Then the work really starts.