Inventoritis and the Grabowski Ratio

“Overcoming Inventoritis” by Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa is a little rough diamond of a book. Though it is very amateurishly produced and designed, and reads like a set of long, disorganized, conversational email notes, it is packed densely with interesting practitioner insights, strung together loosely to argue that “Inventoritis” (never explicitly defined, but roughly, ‘falling in love with your idea’) is an extraordinarily dumb thing to do. The centerpiece of the book is an unusual take on the Edison-vs-Tesla argument. Going against the modern practice of making the former out to be a villain and the latter the hero, the authors argue that evaluated right, Edison was the better inventor. A revealing and startling point that anchors the whole argument is that nearly all of Edison’s 1000+ patents were commercialized, while Tesla’s failed at around an 80% rate, especially in his later phase as an inventor.

Most people in the innovation business take it as an article of faith that inventions should fail at that rate. That the nature of scientific and technical risk dictates that kind of failure rate. That you might even be too cautious if you are not failing at a high enough rate.

The fact that it is Edison and not some random patent troll who is associated with a near 100% hit-rate should make us take a second look at this ‘fundamental nature of innovation risk’ argument. It turns out that much of the risk in innovation does NOT involve technology or science (we are talking industrial innovation here, not NSF basic science). New to me, among the tidbits in the book, was something called the Grabowski Ratio, M/E, or the ratio of market research spend to technology development spend. It turns out that companies/innovators with an M/E close to 1 have extraordinarily high hit rates with the patent portfolio, while most companies languish in the 0.1 range and very high failure rates.

Definitely a first-pass argument, and the angle on Edison-vs-Tesla could probably do with a lot more probing, but thought-provocation is what this book is good for. M/E is now going to be one of my mantras.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Edison may truly have been the better marketer but he wasn’t really the better inventor. Many, many of his patents were based on work done by people working for him. Not on work he did himself.

    He also had gaps in his understanding of scientific principles and never really understood that AC was the better way to go. He really believed that it was dangerous and DC was the way to go.

    So in a way if he was the better marketer no the better inventor that may truly bear out out the Grabowski Ratio.

  2. Bloom: I think the issue here depends on your definition of “better inventor”. Clearly, others are saying that “better” here means commercialized impact, while you had defined as “creativity”.

    By reducing what Edision did down to ‘better marketer’, I am not sure you are being fair to the other definition.

  3. I have long believed that too many organisations willingly accept a high ratio of new consumer product failures, often 8 or 9 out of 10. Most new products are poorly conceived with marginal or confused value propositions directed at unknown customers and with insufficient marketing resources to ensure they succeed, before or after launch.