June 09, 2011

Almost every financial firm we've spoken to over the last 12 months ranks "being innovative" as one of their top qualities and drivers. Some banks have even created a 'chief innovation officer' to bring home the point. Most chief executives believe they've spurred innovation or been innovative themselves.

But what is a true innovator? Well, taking a look at WS&T's Top 10 Innovators of the Decade -- as well as other innovators we researched but didn't make it into our top 10 for one reason or another -- one thing stuck out: innovators don't just invent one thing, or innovate once, and then rest on their laurels: they are constantly on a quest to improve what they've invented, and to invent something new.

Chuck Thacker, one of our top 10 innovators, is perhaps the epitome of the inventor: over a career spanning more than 40 years, he was chief designer of the Xerox Alto, a machine he designed in 1974 that is often called the world's first personal computer; he co-invented the Ethernet local area network; contributed to the first laser printer; and as if that wasn't enough, he also contributed to Microsoft's Xbox game console, and built the first tablet computer, the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which launched in 2002.

Jack Dorsey, the man who invented Twitter, is currently working on a new project, Square, which aims to change the way we make payments by allowing users to attach a device to their mobile phones and then simply swipe a credit card to pay.

In 1995, Elon Musk started a software firm with his brother Kimbal. Their company, zip2, provided online publishing software to media and news organizations. Four years later, the brothers sold their company to Compaq for $307 million in cash and another $34 million in stock options, according to reports. Many people would jump for joy at the thought of earning $307 million and would dream about spending the rest of their lives on a yacht. Not Elon Musk.

Instead, Musk formed a new company called X.com which created the electronic payment system called PayPal. In 2002, eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion.

Still, not all innovators move from one project to the next. But those who stick to one venture don't just invent something and leave it at that. They are driven by a passion to keep improving what they have created. Linus Torvalds, who invented the Linux operating system has been working on Linux for 20 years.

"I think one of the reasons Linux has been pretty successful and I'm still around is exactly that I tend to keep doing things I start with," he said in an exclusive interview with Wall Street & Technology.

"Many projects fail because they get to some half-way decent point, and then the developer (or company) changes direction and goes off and does something else. I still find Linux interesting, and I still do it in many ways for the same reasons I started doing it - just the technical challenge."

So, let's say you've been repeatedly innovative, or at least have worked on one innovation for a number years driven by the passion to improve it. Does that make you a real innovator?

Well, here's what would, or could have helped you on your path to true innovation glory: start "innovating" when you're 19 or 20, and drop out of college.

Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were both 19 and famously dropped out of Harvard when their inventions outgrew their dorm room; Elon Musk dropped out of a Standford graduate program to create zip2.

Mike Lazaridis, president and co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM), which created the ubiquitous BlackBerry, was at the University of Waterloo when he started working on mobile technology. (He too dropped out).

Of course, the very nature of innovation is to reinvent or improve something that often already exists. (The iPad is a prime example: Chuck Thacker invented the tablet 8 years before Steve Jobs' launched the uber popular Apple device).

So if you are in your 30s, 40s or 50s, it might not be too late to start now: As long as you have more than one (re)invention up your sleeve, are prepared to work on the same thing for 20-plus years and of course, create something that will in some way change the world.

Oh, and most innovators we spoke to are rather reclusive. (in fact some didn't want to talk to the media at all). So you might want to consider moving to a little known spot where you can fully focus on the work at hand without any further distractions. After all, innovation is one of the toughest businesses to be in. And one of the rarest to find.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melanie Rodier has worked as a print and broadcast journalist for over 10 years, covering business and finance, general news, and film trade news. Prior to joining Wall Street & Technology in ...