How Innovation Differs from Invention

JULY 20, 2015
Every time I have written about innovation for Pharmacy Times, I am amazed at the response it generates.

This is especially true for student pharmacists, who tend to gravitate toward the topic and appear to have a passion for innovation. More experienced pharmacists may have been involved in bringing innovation to their practice sites. Because of this, they may currently hold leadership positions.

At the root of it, pharmacy needs innovation because many of the problems pharmacists face can only be answered through a problem-solving process.

While there are numerous examples of innovation in various sectors of practice, research, and education, today’s health care environment is ripe for further improvements. Care quality is not as good as can be, drug therapy is too expensive, and more resources are needed for pharmacists to perform everything that is expected of them.

I hope to use this column as a platform to discuss different facets of innovation. My goal is to educate pharmacists about opportunities and hopefully encourage some to use these ideas to improve their practice sites.

To set the foundation for future articles, an understanding of terminology is critical. While I have seen the following terms used interchangeability, I view them as different and distinct. It is possible to find various definitions, but these form the framework:


This is usually defined as the discovery of a new item. Whether it is a new drug, device, or other piece of technology, it is unique and no similar one exists.

Unfortunately, most invention comes from outside of the profession, with individuals using their skills to bring inventions to pharmacy practice. The invention should result in a patent submission because of its novelty and lack of prior art.


This term usually comes after the invention has occurred. This can either be an improvement on a current system or a process that makes things better than their current state. Innovation could also involve taking an existing idea that was implemented at 1 site and replicating it at another.

Because anything unique is often considered innovative, I tend to classify the term as “Big I” innovation or “Little I” innovation. “Big I” innovation is usually a unique improvement, while “Little I” innovation is a replication of what someone else has done at the institution.

For example, implementing a specialty pharmacy within your hospital or including a pharmacist in the emergency department at some point has to first be introduced at a single site. Someone observed the opportunity for this new service and created the business plan for success.

At the first site where it was implemented, I would label this as a “Big I” innovation because it set the precedent for others to emulate. Other sites that implement an in-hospital specialty pharmacy are still innovative, because there is always a skill to justify the new service, but I would classify them as “Little I” innovation. Because it was based on prior art, it was not “Big I” innovative.

I do not label “Big I” innovations as inventions because no patents are filed to describe and protect their novelty. They are improvements of an existing service, as opposed to the creation of new technology.


This term applies when someone takes a novel idea and creates a new business from it. The entrepreneur is usually the founder who gets an equity stake in the start-up company.

The company could be based on an invention or innovation, but it has to have a commercial base to support it. Those who start and own an independent pharmacy would be considered entrepreneurs.

Starting and running a business requires very different skills than inventing and innovating. Some might choose to turn their invention into a business, while others might allow someone else to use their invention to start a company.

While I am currently involved in both invention and entrepreneurship, I hope to focus on innovation because it is applicable to the majority of pharmacists, and it is where solutions to pharmacy problems will be found.

I would like to hear your success stories, the challenges you have faced, and what innovative activities you have implemented.

I would also appreciate any insights and experiences you might have on this perspective. You can let me know what you think by e-mail at 

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