Eric von Hippel

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Eric von Hippel
Eric Von Hippel (3362244285).jpg
Born (1941-08-27) August 27, 1941 (age 78)
Fields Management, Innovation
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Alma mater Harvard
Carnegie Mellon
Doctoral advisor Dwight Bauman
Charles Kriebel
Milton Shaw
Edward B. Roberts
Doctoral students Dietmar Haarhoff
Stefan Thomke
Karim Lakhani
Sonali Shah
Susumu Ogawa
Benjamin Mako Hill
Known for User innovation
Lead user theory

Eric von Hippel (born August 27, 1941) is an economist and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, specializing in the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. He is best known for his work developing the concept of user innovation – that end-users, rather than manufacturers, are responsible for a large amount of innovation. In order to describe this phenomenon, he introduced the term lead user in 1986. von Hippel's work has applications in business strategy and free/open source software (FOSS) and von Hippel is one of the most highly cited social scientists writing on FOSS.

Eric von Hippel is the son of the material scientist and physicist Arthur Robert von Hippel, who was also a professor at MIT. His great uncle is the German ophthalmologist Eugen von Hippel.

The BUGvonHippel is a breakout board module and an example of open-source hardware. It is named for von Hippel and its enclosure bears his name in Braille.

Eric von Hippel is a member of the Advisory Board of Patient Innovation, a nonprofit, international, multilingual, free venue for patients and caregivers of any disease to share their innovations.

Early life

Eric von Hippel grew up in suburban Weston, MA with his parents, three brothers, and one sister. In his early years, Eric attended public school within the town, but then moved on to the Cambridge School of Weston – a private progressive school – for 8th grade, as well as his later years. Even as a young child, outside of the classroom, one of Eric's favorite pastimes was to try to create and invent new things. Much of his inspiration came from his father, Arthur Robert von Hippel, who was also a professor at MIT.


For his undergraduate degree, Eric von Hippel attended Harvard College. In an interview with Eric, he cited that he chose Harvard over MIT for the opportunity to pursue Liberal Arts, as he majored in Economics. His decision to focus in Economics stemmed from his trials in Biology and History, and finding that neither was particularly the right fit for him. After pursuing several inventions post undergraduate, Eric returned to school for his Masters in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. From there, he went on to start his own company, worked at management consultant McKinsey and Co., and eventually studied at Carnegie Mellon University for his Ph.D. in Innovation.


  • Hamburg University of Technology Ph.D. 2013 (Hon)
  • Copenhagen Business School Ph.D. 2007 (Hon)
  • Ludwig-Maximillians Universität München Ph.D. 2004 (Hon)
  • Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. 1974
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology S.M. 1966
  • Harvard College B.A. 1964

Major works

Innovation by users and lead users

User innovation is the idea that more users and consumers are the innovators of new products instead of suppliers.
Eric von Hippel was one of the first to notice this trend and explore it. Products made by manufacturers are developed to meet a wide range of needs and a wide range of people. Therefore, when a particular user experiences needs that are not yet felt by the majority of consumers, they make the adjustments themselves to meet their own needs. Often these ideas are then fed back to manufacturing companies through these users in hopes that the product will then be produced for them. This process is called « free revealing». User innovation can be seen across a wide range of products from home cleaning products, to medical device products. User innovation in scientific instruments has even been found to be a user dominated field through von Hippel's research.[1] User innovation doesn't only extend to tangible products but also services. von Hippel found that eighty-five percent of individuals self-provided themselves with accounting and banking processes before banks offered this service.[2] More recently, with Pedro Oliveira and colleagues studied the role of patients of chronic diseases, and their caregivers, in creating new solutions to help them cope with their health conditions. They administered a survey to 500 rare disease patients/caregivers and found that 40 individuals (8% of the sample) reported solutions that they personally find valuable, and that are also evaluated as novel by expert medical evaluators. If anything like this fraction of innovators holds for the overall population of hundreds of millions of people world-wide estimated to be afflicted by rare diseases, patients and their caregivers may be a tremendous potential resource to improve management and care for many who are similarly afflicted.[3]

An extension of user innovations is the idea of lead users. These are the individuals who first feel the need for a product or service and create it for themselves. Lead user identification is an essential method used by companies to identify the newest innovations in their product areas giving them crucial insight on the needs of their users.[4]

Innovation toolkits

On von Hippel's website, it is stated that innovation toolkits are used to organize and support information that is shared amongst various users and producers of projects.[5] In one of his papers entitled "Perspective: User toolkits for innovation," von Hippel describes how user toolkits can be used to help manufacturers and companies determine the users' need-related aspects of products and services. The users are provided with "user toolkits for innovation," to help the manufacturer outsource tasks that would normally take much time and effort within the company. One of the first areas that user toolkits have been used was in the design and manufacturing of custom integrated circuits.[6] In this field it was critical that manufacturers understood user needs because it could result in months of delays costing the company thousands of dollars. LSI Logic produced a software design tool that its customers could use to design circuits themselves. This move helped LSI grow to be one of the major players in the custom IC market and competitors were soon moving in the same direction.

"Toolkits for user innovation are coordinated sets of "user-friendly" design tools that enable users to develop new product innovations for themselves. The toolkits are not general purpose. Rather, they are specific to the design challenges of a specific field or sub field, such as integrated circuit design or software product design."[7]

Toolkits should have the following features:[6]

  1. Learning by trial-and-error
  2. An appropriate solution space
  3. A user-friendly toolkit
  4. Commonly used modules
  5. Result easily created by user

Sticky information and its uses

Sticky information is information that is expensive to obtain, transmit, and employ in a new location compared to where it originated. "We define the stickiness of a given unit of information in a given instance as the incremental expenditure required to transfer that unit of information to a specified locus in a form usable by a given information seeker. When this cost is low, information stickiness is low; when it is high, stickiness is high," (von Hippel, 1994).[8] Eric von Hippel has worked to define how sticky information influences innovation and how to overcome stickiness when trying to develop a new technology. Sticky information is often encountered when a manufacturers would like to know about how current users feel about their needs and if their needs are being met or not by current product lines. However this information would be difficult to acquire for the manufacturer, though it would be tremendously helpful in their pursuit of product innovation.

Information can be sticky for a number of reasons. Much information that humans have is tacit, and therefore is difficult to communicate when sharing information. Additionally, some technical information is composed of a very large number of parts. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate all of these especially when some operating procedures or techniques are so routine, a regular practitioner may forget to include such details.

The stickiness of a particular type of information can have influences on how advances are made in the field. For example, if a particular company holds much of the expertise and knowledge for a particular technology it will likely be difficult for another company to make advancements that originate from the original technology. Innovations are more likely to occur in the original company. This can also occur in a geographic manner. Local information can also be sticky and innovations that help a particular area with a special problem are likely to come from that area as well.[9]

Measurements of innovation and innovation indicators

Researchers have not started quantifying user innovation until recently. It is important that researchers are able to measure innovation and gather statistics so that policymakers can see the impact of user innovation on modern day technologies. Research has shown that many of the innovative products produced by manufacturers were ideas stemmed off from "lead users."[10] Eric von Hippel has written several papers regarding "Measurements of Innovation" and "Innovation Indicators." In one of his papers, he discusses his work with Fred Gault to survey 1,219 Canadian manufacturing plants to determine the prevalence of user innovation. They were able to determine that "About 20% of the user-innovators surveyed reported transferring their innovations to other users and/or equipment suppliers – and the majority of these at least sometimes did so at no charge to recipients."[10] These types of innovation indicators will help the government and other researchers to see the impact of users on innovation.

Innovation strategies and lead user identification

Eric von Hippel has focused on the following major areas of innovation strategies in his research:

  • Task partitioning
  • Improvement of innovation processes
  • Pyramiding

Task partitioning refers to innovation projects that are partitioned into smaller tasks. Hippel proposes that "problem-solving inter-dependence among tasks can be predicted in many projects and can then be managed by strategies involving (1) adjustment of the task specifications and/or (2) reduction of the barriers to problem-solving interaction across selected or all task boundaries."[11]

Hippel calls attention to the improvement of innovation processes with great detail. He feels that the processes call for more scrutiny and that in turn "their improvement can significantly affect the kinds of research problems that can be addressed, the efficiency and speed with which R&D can be performed, and the competitive positions of firms employing them."[12]

Through his papers, Eric von Hippel deems it critical for market researchers to look for lead users, "users who are on the leading edge of each identified trend in terms of related new product and process and who expect to obtain a relatively high net benefit from solutions to those needs."[13] Pyramiding is a search process based upon the view that people with a strong interest in a topic or field tend to know people more expert than themselves. von Hippel states that it can sometimes be hard to identify lead users or the next CEO of any given company and pyramiding can assist in this process.[14]

Inspiration and Influences

Even as a child, von Hippel was an innovative one. As he likes to point out "(when you're a child) if you don't like what you have you make it yourself", referring to the skateboards and scooters of the past generations. Children designed and produced these products for themselves because they were not available to them otherwise. Hippel became very interested in this phenomenon and how it worked, which guided his path to where he is today. Hippel looks to the work of Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford University whose research looks at the economics of technological change, the economic role of science, as well as economic history and development.[15] Professor Richard Nelson of Columbia University, who focuses on the processes of long-run economic change, with particular emphasis on technological advances.[16] As well as Professor Anne Carter of Brandeis who specializes in the fields of changing specialization of businesses and of workers, economics of information, technical change, and technology transfer.[17] Hippel also sees Dr. Nikolaus Franke of Vienna University of Economics and Business as a great influence in the field of product innovation. Dr. Franke runs an institute on lead user innovation methods, and also focuses on market research.[18]

Additional information

In an interview with Eric von Hippel, he stated that his favorite aspect of his job was doing research, teaching and specifically, working with doctoral students. His own favorite teacher was a high school biology teacher who von Hippel describes as "a wonderful guy,", and who showed him incredible new things in a new light. His idol is Jean Piaget who was a psychologist and a philosopher that focused on learning about the stages of kids lives from observations.

In this leisure time, he enjoys talking to people and spending time with his children. His family includes his wife Jessie who is an editor of scholarly books and journal articles and a tennis player, a daughter, Christiana ,who is a Masters in Public Health student at Indiana University and first recipient of the Ryan White Legacy Scholarship for her work in promoting sexual health, and a son, Eric James, who studies the Japanese language and culture on his own. The family has a cockatiel named Merlin.[19] When Eric von Hippel's daughter was young, he often made up cat-related bedtime stories because cats were her favorite animal. When Christiana was 14 and he was traveling with her they took the opportunity to write these stories down and the stories are entitled "Christiana in Catlandia."[20]

Future works

Hippel hopes to measure how many users innovate and what types of people do this type of work. He would like to show that most innovation is still user innovation. He finds it interesting that in the UK, 8% (3-4 million people) of consumers modify the product that they use. He also noted that hospitals have the right to develop and use ideas as long as they do not sell them and he would like to get the institutional review board to approve development in hospital use. In this way, doctors would do innovation first, and then companies would harness this innovation in order to develop. He stressed the fact that the number of consumers modifying products and thereby innovating outweighs the number of people doing this in companies.[19]

See also


  1. von Hippel, E. (1976). The dominant role of users in the scientific instrument innovation process. Research Policy, 5(3), 212-239. doi:10.1016/0048-7333(76)90028-7
  2. Oliveira, P. & von Hippel, E. A. (2009). Users as Service Innovators: The Case of Banking Services. Research Paper, MIT Sloan School of Management. Retrieved October 20, 2009
  3. Oliveira, P., Zejnilovic, L., Canhão, H. and von Hippel, E. (2015) "Patient innovation under rare diseases and chronic needs", Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 2015, 10 (41) (
  4. Herstatt, C., & von Hippel, E. (1992). From experience: Developing new product concepts via the lead user method: A case study in a "low-tech" field. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 9(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/0737-6782(92)90031-7
  5. Section 5: Innovation toolkits | Eric von Hippel
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  7. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  8. von Hippel (1994), "'Sticky Information'" and the Locus of Problem Solving: Implications for Innovation" Management Science 40, no.4, April 1994: pp 429–439
  9. von Hippel (1998) "Economics of Product Development by Users: The Impact of "Sticky" Local Information" Management Science, vol. 44, No. 5 (May) p. 629-644
  10. 10.0 10.1 Gault, F., & Hippel, E. A. V. (2009). The Prevalence of User Innovation and Free Innovation Transfers: Implications for Statistical Indicators and Innovation Policy, MIT Sloan Working Papers. MIT Sloan School of Management. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from
  11. von Hippel, E. (1990). Task partitioning: An innovation process variable. Research Policy, 19(5), 407-418. doi:10.1016/0048-7333(90)90049-C
  12. Thomke, S., von Hippel, E., & Franke, R. (1998). Modes of experimentation: an innovation process--and competitive--variable. Research Policy, 27(3), 315-332. doi:10.1016/S0048-7333(98)00041-9
  13. von Hippel, Eric (1986), "Lead users: a source of novel product concepts", Management Science: 791–805
  14. von Hippel, E., Franke, N., & Prügl, R. (2008). 'Pyramiding': Efficient Identification of Rare Subjects, 4720-08. Sloan Working Paper, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved November 29, 2008, from
  15. Nathan Rosenberg | SIEPR
  18. Univ. Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Franke - Institut für Entrepreneurship und Innovation | WU
  19. 19.0 19.1 Interview
  20. Just for Fun | Eric von Hippel

External links