The Great Innovators


The Wright brothers’ plane lifts off during the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 17 December 1903.

By Ryan Allis

Innovation is the process of creating something new that makes life better. Innovation is impossible without passion. Innovators see the world differently.

Innovators end up becoming obsessed with taking the world from as it is to as it should be. They become obsessed with making the world better. Many innovators  in the for-profit sector focus incessantly on bringing value to market. Others focus incessantly on the core research needed to push the human race forward. Regardless of the sectors we play in, we are all relentlessly focused on solving problems and creating a better world than the one that exists today.

Here’s a list of the greatest innovators of all time, followed by some of the greatest innovators of the last 30 years and the best up and coming Gen Y innovators.

Let me know in the comments anyone you think we should add to the list.

The 12 Greatest Innovators of All Time

  1. Thomas EdisonOne of the most significant innovators and inventors in American history, Edison is perhaps best known for inventing the first long-lasting, commercially practical incandescent light bulb. He was the father of many other breakthroughs, including the first phonograph and the motion picture camera, and he was influential in developing the first economically viable way of distributing light, heat, and power from a central station.
  2. Steve JobsThe iconic American entrepreneur and founder of Apple will go down in history as one of the great innovators. As CEO of Apple in the 1980s and again in the late 90s and 2000s, Jobs  played a central role in the personal computer revolution and in developing its key products, including the McIntosh, the iPod and the iPhone.
  3. Nikola TeslaA great inventor, engineer, and futurist, Tesla helped develop the AC electrical delivery system. Infamous for his wild experiments and colorful personality, Tesla ‘s creative work regarding the production and transmission of power was far ahead of his time.
  4. Bill Gates. One of the great businessman/philanthropists of the last century, Gates founded and built Microsoft into an unmatched software behemoth before leaving to state the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, a multi-billion dollar philanthropic enterprise working to enhance global healthcare and reduce poverty.
  5. Benjamin Franklin. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Franklin was a brilliant polymath, inventor, political theorist, scientist, statesman, and writer. He had a prodigious scientific mind, and his interests varied widely, but in addition to politics, he is perhaps best known for his experiments with lightning and electricity.
  6. Leonardo Da Vinci. The original “Renaissance man,” Da Vinci is best known for his paintings (the Last Supper, the Mona Lisa) but he was also a philosopher, engineer, and inventor. He left behind him a collection of extraordinarily prescient drawings depicting future technologies (helicopter, tank, solar power).
  7. Alexander Graham Bell. A Scottish inventor and engineer, Bell was awarded the US patent for the telephone in 1876. His work on telecommunications, aeronautics, and many other areas (he invented the metal detector) earned him a reputation as one of the great figures of the nineteenth century.
  8. Sandford Fleming. A Scottish-Canadian innovator and inventor, Fleming used his engineering, surveying, and mapmaking skills to help build the transcontinental railways of the nineteenth century. He was also the inventor of worldwide standard time and the standard times zones used today.
  9. Marie Curie. The first female winner  of the Nobel Prize in 1903 (she won it twice in both physics and chemistry), Curie was a pioneering physicist and chemist who is known for her breakthrough ideas in radioactivity and her discovery of two elements.
  10. The Wright brothers. Orville & Wilbur Wright invented and flew the world’s first successful airplane in 1903. Their persistence, experimentation, and work on the principles of flight made them legendary inventors and innovators.
  11. Galileo Galilei. The legendary Italian genius whose breakthrough ideas helped usher in the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, Galileo is often called the father of modern science. Forced to defend his views of heliocentrism against the Roman inquisition, and spending most of his life under house arrest for heresy, Galileo has become an icon of scientific integrity in the face of religious dogmatism.
  12. Richard Feynman. One of the great scientists of the twentieth century, Feynman’s breakthrough ideas in Quantum theory helped revolutionize that field.

The Greatest Innovators of the Last 30 Years

Some of the greatest innovators of the last thirty years include:

  • Jeff Bezos. Founder and CEO of, Bezos is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, and the man who revolutionized e-commerce.
  • 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 the company’s most innovative technologies including Google Glass, and Google’s self-driving cars.
  • Elon Musk. A co-founder of Paypal, Musk went on to found the electric car company Tesla, and the space technology company SpaceX.
  • Reid Hoffman. Founder of the pioneering social networking website, LinkedIn. Hoffman is a Silicon Valley veteran who was also COO of Paypal.
  • 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.
  • Jeffrey Grossman. The Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, Grossman has done pioneering work and research on materials science, including photovoltaics and nanotechnology.
  • 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 invented the pioneering transportation vehicle the Segway.
  • Marc Benioff. Founder of the software company Salesforce, Benioff has been a innovator in changing the nature of enterprise software in business.
  • Tim Brown. CEO and President of IDEO, the pioneering international design firm, Brown is a global expert on the nature of innovation in business, technology, and design.
  • Martine Rothblatt. Founder of United Therapeutics, a medical biotech company as well as a founder of Sirius Satellite Radio. Rothblatt’s technologically pioneering work has included innovations in space sceince, satellites, the human genome project. She has also been an activist in the transhumanist movement.
  • 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.
  • Michael Dell. Founder and CEO of Dell Computers, Dell changed the personal computer industry with his innovative business methods and pioneering use of e-commerce.
  • 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.
  • Robert De Pera. Robert Pera is the founder of Ubiquiti Networks, a pioneering wireless technology company serving the world’s emerging markets.
  • Marissa Mayer. The current CEO of Yahoo, Mayer was the first female engineer at Google, and at 33 was the youngest on Forbes list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.
  • Shai Agassi. Israeli entrepreneur Agassi was the founder of the unsuccessful but innovative company Better Place, which pioneered a unique battery switching technology for electric cars. While this endeavor didn’t quite work, I am excited to see what Shai brings to the world next.
  • 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.”

The Up & Coming Gen Y Innovators

Here are some of the best up & coming innovators in Gen Y (born since 1980)

  • Mark Zuckerberg. The billionaire co-founder and CEO of Facebook is responsible for the most successful social networking website on the internet, born while he was studying at Harvard.
  • Dustin Moskovitz. A former co-founder of Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, Moskovitz left Facebook to found Asana, the web-based productivity software.
  • Blake Ross. The pioneering founder of the Mozilla Firefox project, the successful open-source browser, Ross also worked at Facebook as head of product.
  • Matt Brimer. Brimer is the co-founder of General Assembly, a global education company that provides entrepreneurs with opportunities and education in technology, design, and business.
  • Jay Kimmelman. Kimmelman is the co-founder of Bridge International, a nonprofit designed to bring low-cost high quality education to those living on less than $2 a day.
  • Ben Rattray. Founder and CEO of, the online petition site focused on social change. Rattray has been named one of Fortune’s 40 under 40 rising young business leaders.
  • Leila Janah. Janah is the founder and CEO of Samasource, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect poor women and youth to the digital economy and “harness the untapped potential of the world’s poor.”
  • Daniel Epstein. Co-founder of Unreasonable Institute, a “boot camp” for social entrepreneurs from around the world, Epstein offers successful applicants the opportunity to connect with mentors and potential investors and access the resources to make their dreams a reality.
  • Pete Cashmore. Founder and CEO of Mashable, Cashmore is responsible for one of the most influential blogs and one of the world’s largest websites.
  • Elliott Bisnow. Bisnow is the founder and CEO of Summit Series, an innovative conference series for entrepreneurs based in Utah.
  • Jack Andraka was only born in 1997, but by the age of 15 he has already changed the world with his innovation. Andraka has developed a new way to detect pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages when there is a much higher likelihood of a cure. His inexpensive method, which could save countless lives, won the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
  • Eesha Khare is another impressive young innovator, who at the age of 18 created a tiny device that could charge a mobile phone in 20-30 seconds—a revolutionary technology she calls a “super-capacitor.” She won the 2013 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for her invention, and plans to use the prize money to pay for her tuition at Harvard and continue her work as an inventor.

As you think about innovation and how you can be innovative in your own life or in your company or in your organization in the years ahead, I encourage you to work on a big problem. I encourage you to think about how you can impact the lives of over one billion people.