What does the word Innovator Mean?

What does the word ‘innovate’ or more specifically ‘innovator’ mean?

To me, it means someone who brings a new or radically different product to market (or academia) that will transform the way I do something.

Dictionary.com suggests that an innovator is one who “introduces something new; make changes in anything established.”

With this being said, some of you might know where I’m headed with this. I’m not attempting to be critical. I’m actually seeking for understanding as yo no entiendo. I don’t understand the word ‘innovator’ as it applies to the Innovator Showdown a the RootsTech conference.

A list of the 12 semi-finalists was revealed for the 2016 conference and I’m having the same confusion as I did when I saw the presentations by the Top Six finalists in 2015. And I remember not being the only one, at least to a certain extent.

Of the finalists showcased on the main stage, only one seemed to fit the bill of ‘innovative’. It was ArgusSearch. This company is pioneering technology that will scan a handwritten document and then turn it into an index, without the need of a ‘live person’ doing the indexing. Compared to the other options, this is revolutionary. Having volunteered as an indexer, having an optical scanner with the capability of transforming handwriting into an index would be awesome! Sure some folks are skeptical, because people index things poorly as well. But, innovation always comes with initial skeptics.

The winner was a system that sends emails and telephone calls to prompt individuals to answer a personal history question. I thought there were a number that have offered this service over the years and this was just another variation on this theme. It didn’t seem new or radically different.

Another top finalist was a place where you could place a bid to have a genealogy hobbyist do a look-up of some kind for a price. I thought RootsBid had presented this kind of company at RootsTech2014. Once again, I couldn’t understand how this was innovative.

When I saw the semi-finalists for this year’s Innovators Showdown, I feel like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride who said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I do not mean to disparage entrepreneurs who are bringing products to market. Competition and tweaking a pre-existing idea does benefit an industry, and will do so for genealogy. However, the word ‘innovator’ isn’t painting the correct picture in my mind when I see a list full of companies doing things that already seem to be offered by other companies.

Take for instance the service that tells you to make a detailed request and offer a fair reward and have someone fulfill that request. Hmm… that’s not innovative if the service was a top finalist from the last 2 years.

Another innovator curates family stories, photos, and documents after you build a family tree. That sounds like FamilySearch, which is happens to be free.

Another innovator seems to take a website like Ancestry.com and makes it available in a different language. The translation of the service is great, but is it innovative?

A few finalists deal with recording personal history, or creating journals.  I’ve looked into digital journaling in the past but found that the only innovation that was needed was a way to export the content into a PDF and/or send it to a service like Blurb or BlogtoBook for printing. Otherwise, what goes in can’t come out. Besides the exporting limitations of journaling programs, what is innovative about digital diaries?  And, if both services offer journaling and journal preservation, wouldn’t that cancel each other out for an innovator award?

Another semifinalist is an educational resource. I suppose the word innovative means that it’s pulling lectures from a variety of resources into one place, for a fee. I thought that’s what Legacy Family Tree webinars, the FamilySearch Learning Center, and the Ancestry.com educational resources were about. Once again, I don’t see the appropriate use of the word innovative.

I could go on with the list, but I don’t want to loose you on my point. I don’t think “Innovator Showdown” really means what RootsTech planners and the award selection committee thinks it means. These services aren’t necessarily new and revolutionary. They seem to be tweaks of already existing offerings. Thus, wouldn’t it be better to call the competition “Entrepreneurial Showdown?”

I look forward to seeing how the 12 semi-finalists are narrowed down to 6 and then an eventual winner. Will the most innovative company on the list win the top prize and use the prize money to expand their innovation? Or will the money go to an entrepreneur who is ready to launch a better version of an existing product?

The final winner will solidify in my mind how I should interpret the semifinalists in future Innovator Showdown competitions.

Of the 12 semifinalists, which ones peek your interest?

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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