When Thomas Edison died he left a gaping hole. He was credited with inventing everything from the electric light bulb, to the phonograph, to the movie projector, to the stock ticker, to the motion picture camera, to the entire movie industry.

He lived during an age of great inventors like Henry Ford, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Curie, the Wright Brothers, Edwin Land, and Harvey Firestone. But it was Edison’s name that rose to the top.

While he had many detractors, Edison’s name was revered by millions, creating generations of Edison wanna-bees. Businesses found this to be a threat to their influence and control and began forcing all new-hires to sign over the rights to their inventions during their time of employment. And so the great age of inventors came to an end… at least for a while.

When Steve Jobs came along, he brought with him a flair for the same kind of PT Barnum-showmanship that kept Edison in the news. Along with ushering in the personal computer era, Jobs was the chief visionary behind everything from the iPod, to the iPhone, to the iPad, and was the founder of Pixar animation studios.

Some went so far as to describe Jobs as the “Father of the Digital Revolution.” However, when Jobs died, the world has once again been left with a huge void.

But times are different now. We live in a global marketplace. Most large companies have lost their ability to innovate. Startup incubators are cropping up everywhere and money for startups is readily available through crowdfunding, angels, VCs, and both acquisitions and IPOs are back as viable exit options.

With these and many other forces in play, creative individuals are feeling empowered like never before, and several are lining up to claim the now open title of “World’s Chief Innovator.”

Here’s a look at some of the contenders and why we’re in for some dramatic times ahead.

“The true innovator is not bound by traditional thinking!”

The New Path of Innovation

Hollywood loved to portray the old fashion inventor as a mad scientist developing Rube Goldberg devices in his garage while espousing some crackpot theory of physics as he proceeded to blow up more than a few things along the way.

On the other end of the spectrum, today’s Tony Stark computer genius-type inventor is never being more than 10 keystrokes away from whatever information is needed and able to compress eight years of product development into 5 minutes with the aid of a room-size interactive hologram and an ability to gesture-manipulate components on the fly.

The true innovator is not bound by traditional thinking. While not all innovation includes the early-stage invention or discovery phase, it does involve bringing the vision to life.

That said, there are many different kinds of innovators. Here are a few of the novel ways innovation is currently taking place:

  1. Skunk Works Innovators – Originally championed by Lockheed Martin in their advanced development programs, today’s skunk works projects refer to a small and loosely structured R&D team to develop new projects primarily for the sake of radical innovation.
  2. Philanthropic Innovators – Most of the innovation currently being championed by Bill Gates is being done with philanthropic donations.
  3. System Innovators – Very often simply tweaking a major system can have far reaching implications. When a group of quants tried to rework the home mortgage industry, the fallout was far from pleasant. At the same time, we are burdened with countless bad systems that need to be revamped.
  4. Competition Innovators – When Pete Diamandis announced the winner of the very first X-Prize competition, a new form of innovation entered the business world lexicon.
  5. Political Innovators – When President Obama wanted to change healthcare in the U.S., his primary toolset involved passing a bill in congress, political processes, and legal mandates.
  6. Economic Innovators – In the months following Bitcoin’s debut, a number of other crypto currencies began to surface, causing us to rethink our relationship with money.
  7. Design Center Innovators – Inside Apple, all new products are developed inside Jony Ive’s design studio.
  8. Open Source or Crowdsourced Innovators – Places like Kickstarter and Indigogo are a ripe new playground for the inventive mind to launch their latest project.
  9. Experience Innovators – The entire retail storefront industry is quickly coming to grips with two equations: (product + experience) will draw a far bigger crowd than (product + no experience). Many storefronts would do well to hire a Slashcaster.
  10. Social Innovators – Facebook is a good example of social innovation because it changes our relationship with those around us.

This is far from an exhaustive list of how and where innovation can take place, but a few to stimulate your thinking as to the toolsets true innovators will use to break down the barriers before them.

The Race to the Top

A good sign that someone is vying to don the title of “World’s Chief Innovator” is his or her unquenchable thirst to create something new. Having one wildly successful business or product is never enough.

Here are a few of the people that fit this description, with the first eight falling into what we might consider today’s A-list contenders:

  • Elon Musk – As one of the founding members of the infamous PayPal Mafia, Musk is the founder of the electric car company Tesla, space technology company SpaceX, and the attention-grabbing Hyperloop mass transit company.
  • Jeff Bezos – Founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Bezos is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, and the man who revolutionized e-commerce. In 2013, Bezos purchased The Washington Post newspaper.
  • Larry Page – Co-founder and current CEO of Google, Page is leading one of the most innovative and successful companies in the world, perhaps in history.
  • Sergey Brin – The multi-billionaire co-founder of Google, Brin has been involved with some of the company’s most innovative technologies including Google Glass, and Google’s self-driving cars.
  • J. Craig Venter – Venter is an American biologist and entrepreneur. He is known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome. He is currently on a quest to develop synthetic antibodies and new forms of life.
  • Mark Zuckerberg – As the youngest member of this elite list and founder of Facebook, Zuckerberg has been unusually skilled at treading the fickle waters of social networking. His age of innovation is only beginning.
  • Bill Gates – As the founder of Microsoft and perennial winner of the richest guy in the world competition, Gates has become very focused on innovation through highly directed philanthropy.
  • Pete Diamandis – Diamandis is an American engineer, physician, and Intel entrepreneur best known for being the founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, along with co-founder and chairman of Singularity University.
  • Jack Ma – Former CEO of the amazingly successful Alibaba Group, Ma is currently focused on rethinking education and environmental issues in China.
  • Sebastian Thrun – Thrun is an educator, programmer, robotics developer and computer scientist from Germany. Currently he is CEO and cofounder of Udacity, a disruptive force in higher education.
  • Peter Thiel – Thiel is an American entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and hedge fund manager. Thiel cofounded PayPal with Reid Hoffman and Elon Musk, and served as its CEO. He also cofounded Palantir, of which he is currently chairman.
  • Paul Allen – Allen is an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist, best known as the co-founder, with Bill Gates, of Microsoft Corporation.
  • Reid Hoffman – Founder of the pioneering social networking website, LinkedIn. Hoffman is a Silicon Valley veteran who was also a member of the Paypal Mafia.
  • Richard Branson – The colorful and creative British founder of Virgin Group is one of the most successful businessmen of our time, as well as a billionaire philanthropist and humanitarian.
  • Ray Kurzweil – Revolutionary futurist, celebrated inventor, innovative researcher, and bestselling author, Kurzweil received the 1999 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and is currently Director of Engineering at Google working in the field of artificial intelligence.
  • Dean Kamen – An American inventor and entrepreneur, Kamen is perhaps best known for inventing the pioneering transportation vehicle, the Segway.
  • Larry Ellison – Co-founder and CEO of Oracle, Ellison is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world and has been a long-time pioneer and innovator in the software industry.
  • Hiroshi Mikitani – Mikitani is co-founder and CEO of Rakutan, Japan’s largest e-commerce company with a focus on empowering merchants with exceptional service.
  • Jony Ive – A world-renowned product designer, Ive is the person responsible for many of the Apple’s most innovative and pioneering designs, including the iPhone, the iPad and the Macbook.
  • Marissa Mayer – As the only female on the list, Mayer is the current CEO of Yahoo, first female engineer at Google, and at 33 was the youngest on Forbes list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.
  • Salman Khan – Founder of the Khan Academy, a free, nonprofit online education platform, Khan’s mission is to provide a “world class education for anyone, anywhere.”
  • Jack Dorsey – Jack is best known as a co-founder and co-creator of Twitter and as the founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company.

The Person Behind Door #3

There are perhaps dozens, even hundreds more that should be on this list. It could be that the most innovative of all hasn’t even revealed themselves yet.

Many of our largest industries are still waiting for a disruptor to emerge. To be sure, we haven’t yet seen the chief reformers for the power industry, healthcare, space tourism, telecom, cable TV, banking, credit cards, and insurance.

At the same time, the biggest innovations of all may actually take place with new forms of government, reinventing the tax code, or developing some new financial system.

“Innovators have a way of being revered throughout history.”

Final Thoughts

If Linus Torvalds grew up being trained as a mechanical engineer instead of a software engineer, would he have started an open source movement for robots?

If Werner von Braun had known about the Space Elevator in the early 1900s, would we be using one today, or at least be a few years closer to reality?

If Judge Harold Green hadn’t broken up AT&T, would we ever have gotten to the point of developing the Internet?

Innovators come in many forms and have a way of being revered throughout history. While it requires an unusual personality and the path is strewn with hardship and confrontation, the world now views the innovator as the most honorable of all professions.

Even though it hasn’t been acknowledged as a formal race, many are now on a quest to become the most innovative person of all time, or as I like to think of it as the “World’s Chief Innovator.”

There’s an opening. No need to apply, just do it!

Book Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey