Identifying Potentially Disruptive Innovators

Abstract: This paper examines new ways to extract more insights from the invention networks.  We have developed a way of graphing the social influence, diversity of thought and creative intensity of inventors that visually identifies people that we believe are more likely to be the source of disruptive innovations and/or influential subject matter experts.

Innovation Business Partners has been mapping and analyzing innovation networks using patents as a proxy for creativity.  This particular analysis was piloted for the Secretary of the Navy’s Task Force Innovation.

The figure below contains the data from all patents granted to the U.S. Navy from 2010 till April 2015.  In total there were 970 granted patents from 1,363 inventors.  Each data point represents one of the 1,363 inventors.

Figure 1: Social Influence and Diversity of Thought

The x-axis is the inventor’s normalized betweenness centrality (NBC) scaled from 0 to 100.  The higher the NBC the more frequently that inventor is on the shortest path between any two other randomly chosen inventors in their connected component.  In social networks the shorter the path the stronger the trust bridge and hence the more social influence the inventor is likely to have in the network.

We calculate “diversity of thought” by counting the number of different US PTO class codes the inventor has received granted patents in.  We reason that the greater the number of different class codes the more diverse that inventor’s spectrum of thought.

The graph reveals some interesting insights.  First, as we learned from previous studies most inventors have little social influence as evidenced by the clustering of data points close to the origin.  However, the spread of the cluster along the y-axis also indicates that we have a spectrum of inventors with different degrees of diversity of thought.

Figure 2: Social Influence, Diversity of Thought, and Creative Intensity

But social influence and diversity of thought do not capture the whole picture.  To do this we have plotted a third parameter that we call “creative intensity”, as judged by the sheer number of patents an inventor has[1].  The creative intensity is shown by the relative diameter of the data points.  The largest sphere indicates a total of 18 granted patents in the five year time span.  This additional parameter reveals that the Navy actually has two kinds of subject matter experts (SME).  One is the “Focused-SME” (F-SME) who has produced a volume of intellectual property in a narrow spectrum of domains, the other is the “Renaissance-SME” (R-SME) who has produced a volume of intellectual property across a broader spectrum of domains. The F-SME should exhibit a relatively greater “depth” of knowledge in his/her domain, while the R-SME should exhibit a greater “breadth” of knowledge.  We speculate that the F-SME is critical to generating and propagating new knowledge within an existing paradigm while the R-SME might be critical to challenging existing paradigms or introducing new ones.

Next consider inventors that fall along or near the diagonal.  The further out and up the diagonal the greater their social influence and diversity of thought.  We think these are very interesting people.  Given their higher diversity of thought we would expect their personal innovation network to contain a broader spectrum of knowledge from multiple disciplines.  And given their relatively higher social influence they should be in a position to have tacit/explicit dialogues across domains and identify the innovations at the intersections, and perhaps find the disruptive ideas that arise from combinations of multiple paradigms.

The person furthest out on the diagonal is a Navy scientist with a social influence of 68, and diversity of thought of 7.  A Google search revealed that this scientist has received the Japan Society of Applied Physics Outstanding Paper Award. This award is only given to a select group of papers that present excellent achievement in applied physics and are published in the last twenty-four months in Japan Society of Applied Physics journals.  With less than ten papers selected out of more than six thousand this is a truly prestigious award[2].

While not as far out on the diagonal, a scientist from a different Navy laboratory has a social influence value of 46, and diversity of thought of 8.  In 2012 when Innovation Business Partners was conducting innovation interviews at this laboratory their leadership identified this scientist as managing one of the most innovative groups in in the lab.

In the interview we discovered that this scientist had a very different approach to managing his group.  While he understood that it was his responsibility to ensure his group complied with rules and regulations, he always tried to accomplish this with a maximum of flexibility.  He claimed that people cannot be creative if bombarded with management requirements.

His hiring practice was also unusual.  He didn’t tolerate “big egos”.  He believed they killed creativity.  Evidence that the potential employee was a collaborator weighs heavily in his hiring decision.  He doesn’t believe in the isolated inventor, he facilitates the dialogue and collaboration between all members of his group.

He also described a familial approach to management.  He hosted many activities outside of work that built the social relationships and trust among his people.

Finally, he described an innovative process that he developed which he called the “Pyramid”.  Every summer for ten weeks he would hire PhD’s, Masters, and BS level people from local colleges.  He would also bring in students form the local community colleges and high schools.  His team would choose a topic, and for ten weeks this extended innovation network would brainstorm.  He required that the PhD’s mentor the Masters level people, the Masters the BS level people, and so on down to the students.  He claimed this process produced enough proposal ideas to last the entire year.

In a recent email from the laboratory leadership they informed us this scientist was promoted to lead a much larger science and technology organization.  It will be interesting to see if he can create the same culture of innovation across a larger organization.


The betweenness centrality value for an individual inventor is a function of the size of the connected component that he/she is a member of.  This punishes people in small connected components.  Many factors can affect the size of the connected component, for example the organizations hierarchy, geographic isolation, or policies that discourage collaboration.  Since we looked at all patents from the Navy and do not have the information that would assign them by organization we cannot account for this.

Second, we chose the most recent five year timeframe because it provided a reasonable number of inventions and inventors, and would be most representative of the “current” characteristics of the inventors.  Had we chosen a different historical five year span or increased our span it would have biased the results toward more senior people whose creative intensity might have peaked at an earlier point in their career.

Even with these caveats our objective was to determine if examining social influence, diversity of thought, and creative intensity would result in valuable insights and we believe it has.

[1] NOTE: Excel bubble charts limit the number of data points to 250 or less.  To meet this constrain we eliminated from the dataset any inventor with normalized betweenness centrality less than one. This left 148 inventors which are show in this graph.  In the future we will seek to find a way around this constraint so as to not eliminate people with high creative intensity but low social influence.  Second, in order to fully display the “bubbles” we had to extend the y-axis down to 0 and up to 12, and the x-axis to 110.



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