Learning to Be Edison: Inventors, Organizations, and Breakthrough Inventions

  • Conti R
  • Gambardella A
  • Mariani M
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This study examines whether inventors’ past stock of inventions affects the rate at which they produce technological breakthroughs, as well as the role of organizational contingencies in moderating this effect. The breakthrough rate depends on the rate at which an inventor generates inventions and the probability that each of these inventions is a breakthrough. We argue that inventors with larger patent records generate a higher rate of inventions, but the single inventions that they generate each have a lower probability of being a breakthrough. Longitudinal data of 5,144 European inventors and fixed-effects estimation confirm these predictions and reveal that the net effect of the inventors’ stock of past inventions on the breakthrough rate is positive—that is, more established inventors display a higher rate of breakthroughs than brand-new inventors. We also confirm the role of organizational contexts in shaping inventors’ productivity. In particular, firms’ control over research and development targets lessens the advantage of established inventors with regard to the rate of breakthrough generation.

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  • Raffaele Conti

  • Alfonso Gambardella

  • Myriam Mariani

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