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

5/18/11

[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 »

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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  • http://www.whobrain.com William Disman

    Judith and Joseph,

    This post was very inspiring, I myself am a startup based on scientific innovation. As an Applied Mathematician and young CEO my startup harnesses the energy of scientists to transform current best practices in the online advertisement field. We are based out of San Diego, and currently in California we have Bill SB 242 that aims to protect consumers against internet companies using your personal data without your consent. Our science bets that if we as consumers are not comfortable with advertisers knowing our personal data, the field of artificial intelligence will be completely trumped before it even began.

    It is clear to me that scientists drive innovation, we have the skills necessary to create technology, what is not clear to me is how I can approach a VC as a scientist. When I attempt to “crack the deal” using science, I can watch the eyes of VC’s glaze over and become curious why I approached them if I just want to talk science. Yet when I discuss the financial implications I can motivate them to help me to build the business. There is a very delicate balance that occurs in the business of science, and one must inspire innovation on both the business end and within the science. You have clearly pointed out issues resulting from imbalance, and I couldn’t agree with you more: They day of the innovator has arrived.

  • http://www.upliftinc.org/inventech.html Ida Byrd-Hill

    Before innovation comes invention. The innovation cycle would move a lot faster if young people in middle and high school were grounded in the invention process. When they arrive on college campuses their minds would be wired for innovation. I am in the midst of a charter school start-up named INVENTech Academy. Our goal is to create interdisciplinary curriculum based on case studies that forces young people to think about inventions and hence innovation.

  • http://www.powerpatterns.com Sarah Miller Caldicott

    Fascinating view of “what’s needed” to accelerate innovation in the US today. There’s no question that science and R&D remain crucial…what’s shifted, as you note, is the infrastructure into which these resources must “plug in.”

    Scientists are not trained to see through to the end user, to the marketplace. We need to release the stigma that still surrounds the commercialization of research…MIT has had great success with this.

    As a great grandniece of Thomas Edison, one key finding of my research into Edison’s methods reveals that he revelled in the prospect of being able to practically apply his research endeavors to the betterment of humankind. The inventions, industries, and patents he developed all testify to this. I think even more than a binocular view, Edison had a “360 degree” view of the spectrum running from research to commercial success. We need to develop this in our students and scientific community today!

  • http://jgiordan.com Judy

    Thanks for your comments! The opportunity of finding ways to create a better vocabulary for all to be able to hear and understand what the other is saying is at the heart of the human enterprise – no matter what the topic. And rewarding BOTH scientists who can and want to learn the language of business as well as business people who respect science and its language provides for a two way bridge.

    Data show that young children are very facile at learning all sorts of languages…so analogously, the earlier any of us can learn another vocabulary, the more easily we incorporate it into our so-called “normal patterns” of speech.

    IMAGINE the power of people fluent in both science and business who can help the planet….gee, starts sounding like the great inventors of any generation – as we have so wonderfully been reminded by the recollection of Thomas Edison! And now followed by those scientists starting businesses today and training young people for tomorrow – as mentioned in the other posts!

    Thank you!The planet needs your help!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/marcusgay Marcus Oliver Gay

    Judy: Fantastic article and I agree wholeheartedly with your key points as echoed by other reader comments. Over the past 10 years, I have worn a number of ‘hats’; from my time as a bench chemist in a purely academic environment, that of an R&D scientists in an industrial biotech company, to that of Business Development Manager within the exciting field of BioEnergy. At present, I have the fantastic opportunity to work with a leading publisher of scientific information as we develop a tool that strives to help with the language barrier and lack of binocular vision that is discussed here.

    I propose that Information + Imagination = Innovation. Today, as Scientists and Engineers, we are not limited by our imagination. Neither are we limited by access to information. Rather, we are constrained by our ability to effectively navigate the abundance of information available. The challenge is on our ability to efficiently identify and effectively leverage the valuable pieces of information for the problems we face.

    Our approach is to arm Scientists and Engineers with a tool that gives access to a comprehensive set of information ranging from scientific and technical information, industrial information, and ultimately market and regulatory information. Armed with reliable INFORMATION early in the R&D process we can ensure that the IMAGINATION of our scientific resources will lead to INNOVATION that will build our economy and create a sustainable future.

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