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It is widely believed that breakthrough innovation is more likely to be achieved by teams. Research has found that teams generally outperform individuals when attempting to create impactful innovations such as highly cited technological patents or scientific publications.

However, our research has uncovered a factor that plays a key role in determining whether team outcomes will be superior to those of lone inventors: the structure of the invention — that is, the extent to which the invention can be broken down into separate components or “modules.”

We analyzed 1,603,970 utility patents (awarded for innovation in function, such as for a product, process, or machine) and 198,265 design patents (innovation in form, such as a distinct visual configuration or ornamentation of a product), filed between 1985 and 2009 with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

We tallied the number of “breakthrough” inventions, defined as those whose number of citations is within the top 5% of its product class. (The success of an invention is commonly measured by how often it is cited in patents by subsequent inventors.) We then tested whether a given inventor was more likely to get a patent for a breakthrough invention when developing it as part of a team of inventors or as a solo inventor.

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