Innovation as King Is Dead. The Day of the Innovator Has Arrived

Opinion

[This post was co-authored by Joseph Steig of VentureWell—Eds.]

The United States needs new, bold science innovation to address the challenges facing people and the planet—and to create jobs and a strong economy. Yet what is glamorous in popular business culture is not science innovation, but rather bold pitches, business innovations, fast and big exits. The face of this culture is not the technology innovator but the CEO, pitchman, business leader, King who can crack the deal, make the VCs or the Street happy, and move on to the next game—all the while making speeches from the podium of the next conference about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the Next Big Thing.

Why does this neglected focus on innovation matter? If we don’t put focus back on the innovator and on scientific innovation, our nation will be left behind, the challenges of sustainable energy, global health, adequate food and water will go unanswered, and the meaningful, economically viable jobs they bring will not be created. But it’s not an either/or proposition, not business innovation versus science innovation. It has to be both.

At a recent Fast Company “Innovation Uncensored” conference, JetBlue and Hulu were called out as exemplars of innovation. As wonderful as those companies are, conflating such business innovation with innovation writ large is a dangerously limiting view. It is essential to cultivate innovators who not only love the lab but love the market too, who can see the world through both the lens of science and the market. It’s only with that binocular vision that more fundamental innovation can be unleashed.

But don’t scientists and engineers really want to be back in their labs grinding out cool science? And isn’t it up to business leaders to extract the science that can be commercially valuable? This perspective is at the root of the problem. The skill of combining market and technology innovation is at the very heart and soul of profitably and effectively commercializing and reaping the rewards of science or engineering research. As a country we have to redouble our efforts to support the commercialization of real scientific and research innovation. But we also have to support scientists and engineers to become players in the global game of business innovation—where the stakes may actually be as high as the survival of the planet as we know it.

So how did we get here? First, it wasn’t the build-to-flip Web 2.0 culture that began the trend of undervaluing science innovators and creating a view that innovation means the next cool app or a nicer way to fly. Global companies that were built on their skills and inventions started that ball rolling, and initially the reasons were appropriate—the need for R&D to move more rapidly to commercial products aligned with existent market needs. Starting in the late 80s the trend of aligning … Next Page »

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Judith C. Giordan is board chairman for VentureWell, a university venture advisor and funder, which she leads with Joseph Steig. She is a former Fortune 100 exec and also serves as Senior Advisor to the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Follow @

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