Why It’s Noble to Be An Innovator

12/7/10Follow @rowe

Many Xconomy readers have spent their careers in the innovation field. How important is our work?

We all have friends who are doctors, teachers, firemen, journalists… people who make the world better somehow. How about us? Does our work stack up as meaningful?

If you are an innovator, what follows is a primer on why you should feel pretty comfortable at your next college reunion.

I’ve assembled some examples from the Cambridge innovation community in the fields of medicine, software, and energy.

Medicine: While a doctor can treat thousands of patients over a career, and we are grateful for her work, your impact can be much, much bigger. The researcher who invents a new medicine or medical device can cure millions…even billions. Cambridge firm Gloucester Pharmaceuticals, purchased by Celgene, has done this for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. InVivo Therapeutics is working hard on overcoming paralysis. The same basic thing is happening in nearly every disease category. Over the past four decades, new medicines have cut in half the number of hospital visits required by those suffering from 12 major diseases.

Computing: Geeks like Cambridge-based researcher Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and those who built the myriad tools that make it work, have essentially created the world’s largest, cheapest, and most useful library, at little or no cost to the public. These days it is available even in places like rural Cambodian schools and the mountains of Nepal. Open-source mobile operating systems such as Google’s Android, developed in Cambridge and Mountain View, are spreading it even further afield. If knowledge and education are the foundations of democracy, these innovations will help bring democracy to the world.

Energy: Innovations such as the ultra capacitors being developed by MIT spin-out FastCap Systems, as well as numerous other inventions to allow low-cost wind, clean-coal, solar-energy, give us a shot at kicking our carbon fuel habit. There is no taking these innovations for granted. If we don’t kick carbon fuels, when the supply runs out, as a civilization we are done. What could be more important?

OK, you say. Some innovation really does matter. But how about those of us who are in less earth-shattering innovative endeavors? Does innovation still matter if we create new companies that, for instance, provide online marketing services, rent exotic cars, or invent new soups?

It turns out it does matter. Big time.

For the past 30 years or so, the U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting data about where new jobs come from. Recently, researchers at the Census Bureau and the Kauffman Foundation analyzed this data closely. Experts used to be believed that new jobs come from “small business” writ large. But the Census Bureau and Kauffman researchers found that this previous conclusion missed the point: growth is not from “small firms”, but rather from “new firms.”

Over the past quarter century, all net new jobs in the United States came from firms that were less than five years old. The rest, as a whole, lost jobs.

Firms less than 5 years old collectively created, net of job losses, 3 million new jobs a year. Meanwhile, companies 5 years old and up collectively lost 1 million jobs per year. This is an agenda-changing conclusion for the economic development field, because it suggests that instead of pursuing quite so many policies supporting “small business,” governments should really be pushing policies, such as entrepreneurship education, that support the creation of new business.

Fortunately, this message is now beginning to be internalized by the economic press, as highlighted in this recent piece in the Wall Street Journal calling out the need for more new firms.

The importance of innovation seems to be cropping up even in the global balance of power.

This weekend, in his New York Times op-ed “The Big American Leak,” Tom Friedman called attention to the fact (highlighted in the wikileaks cables) that the U.S. has been reduced to begging and bribing even very small countries to help it accomplish its goals.

Friedman provides numerous examples that are pretty uncomfortable for Americans to hear. He laments our dwindling power in the world, and says the problem is that we have no leverage. We are so dependent on oil that we prop up shady regimes for fear that their replacements will deny us what we need. We cannot hold a hard line.

Here’s one specific example of how Friedman thinks those of us in the innovation community may hold the key to unlocking the problem, however:

Think how different our conversations with Saudi Arabia would be if we were in the process of converting to electric cars powered by nuclear, wind, domestic natural gas and solar power? We could tell them that if we detect one more dollar of Saudi money going to the Taliban then they can protect themselves from Iran.

So, whether it be the direct value of our innovations, the jobs we create, or the enhancement of the global power of the developed world, our work is critically important to the health and well-being of our nation and the world.

Congratulations on picking such a meaningful career, and have fun at that next reunion!


Xconomist Tim Rowe is Founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. Follow @rowe

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  • AndrewW

    Great article and insights. We need more people to think, imagine and solve problems.

    I like this young startup in San Francisco: http://www.2020b.com – they have three breakthrough ideas that can help renew America.