If There's An Innovation Gap, Where Is It?

BusinessWeek says that it's not in basic research, it's bringing that research to market

4 min read

A BusinessWeek article this week, "Turning Research into Inventions and Jobs," asserts that there's plenty of basic research in the world. What there's not enough of, the authors assert, is products - products that exploit this research.

But too often overlooked in discussions over research spending is a fundamental fact: We've already got an abundance of research. The next transistor, semiconductor, or breakthrough in MRI technology may already have been discovered. The problem is, we've dropped the ball on translating this science into invention. The vast majority of great research is languishing in filing cabinets, unable to be harnessed by the entrepreneurs and scientist-businesspeople who can set it free. We consider this shortfall academia's equivalent of Alaska's "bridge to nowhere."

The article, by Vivek Wadhwa and Robert E. Litan, was written in disagreement with an earlier BusinessWeek article, "How Science Can Create Millions of New Jobs," which asserted that "Reigniting basic research can repair the broken U.S. business model and put Americans back to work." I think Judy Estrin might agree with that, and she would certainly disagree with the new article.

Almost exactly a year ago, Estrin's book, Closing the Innovation Gap, was published by McGraw-Hill Press. Andy Grove of Intel called it “A passionate look at innovation by a proven innovator concerned about the level of short-sightedness surrounding us.” Grove is right — it's a topic Estrin is remarkably qualified to talk about. She's now at Stanford, but back in the day she co-founded seven different technology companies. When one of them was bought by networking goliath Cisco Systems she became its chief technology officer. (Chapter Two of the book, "The Innovation Ecosystem," is available here.)

I did a long podcast interview with Estrin when the book came out. In it, she asserts just the opposite of what Wadhwa and Litan says. Her view is that there is a dearth of fundamental research, in fact, that we're still living off the seed corn of the 1960s and 1970s - and it's running out. Here's a snippet from the interview.

SPECTRUM: Engineering and innovation are in your blood. Your mother was the second woman ever to get a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.... And your father taught at UCLA — he helped start up the computer science department. You went there in the early 1970s; you were on Vint Cerf's research team as the Internet Protocol was being invented there. But you say in your book that was also the time innovation started to decline.
ESTRIN: It started in the 70's with a narrowing of the horizons in the research community first and that's where we began to pull back on planting the seeds for the future. It came in a variety of ways, it came in terms of government funding for research, not just the magnitude of the funding but how it was allocated, and the types of funding that were coming out of the government agencies, and how it was allocated amongst different fields of science.
But the other thing that happened in the 70s and 80s is that corporations began to focus on becoming more and more efficient and more and more productive; a good thing and on the surface you would say. Of course they need to do that but as they did and as they started to focus on productivity and efficiency they essentially took all the slop out of the system and often innovation happens, comes out of some of those inefficiencies. And they became so efficient that people began to invest just for the short term and in order to have sustainable innovation, you have to be wiling to invest in things that you don't know what the outcome is going to be, that you don't know is going to succeed. And as corporations became more efficient they cut back on investing in things that didn't have direct correlation to their quarterly or this year's earnings.
So we stopped planting seeds for the future not just in research but in corporations for a while. The startup ecosystem was still thriving, so a lot of innovation was coming out of Silicon valley and other places where startups thrived.
But when we hit 2000 and the bursting of the internet bubble, the corporate scandals and the tragedy of 9/11 we saw a shift here in Silicon Valley of people becoming more risk averse and more short term focused. So as a result I have people coming and saying to me “well come on Judy there's been lots of innovation over the last couple of years look at the iPod, look at consumer internet, look at what's happened in biotech.”
And yes there is still innovation going on my claim is not that there is not but the innovation we're doing is tending to be more incremental and is built upon years and years of seeds that were planted but we're not continuing to plant enough seeds to sustain us out 10, 20, 30 years from now.
I have a quote in the book that I really liked. When I interviewed Mark Andressen, who developed the initial browser, he was telling me how quickly he was able to bring the browser to the market, and I looked at him and just said “That was an incredibly short time” and he said “you know the browser we developed was just the icing on a cake that had been baking for 30 years.”
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