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 R&D with business units and minimizing longer-term R&D began. During this time, many companies helped researchers gain a better sense of market need, and helped them to be part of business teams. Project teams often incorporated market expertise, R&D, manufacturing, and finance—as the concept of cross-functional teams as a means for rapid commercialization took hold and in the book Third Generation R&D and articles such as “Intrapreneurship in R&D” and “Why Not Every Customer Should Be King” published in Research Technology Management (RTM) looked at ways to optimize a structure, and in the RTM article “Improving the R&D Decision Making Process”, the “best” companies were cited for excellence in aligning R&D with corporate strategy, technology commercialization, and measuring effectiveness.

But if a little was good in the way of this change, a lot might be better. By the beginning of the 21st century, wholesale realignments of R&D into businesses—coupled with budget cuts as a quick solution to realigning balance sheets—saw R&D as an easy target, and companies began the trend of downsizing research capabilities or transforming a subset of skilled forward-thinking scientists and engineers into primarily technical service or manufacturing support groups. The result was fewer new products coming to market to sustain corporate growth, but as this happened over more than quarterly reporting horizons, the decline was less noticeable—but inexorable.

With little to no R&D providing products from their own labs, companies began to look to Open Innovation and acquisitions—interactions with universities and new startups—as their seed corn for the future. However if the only change is the location of the research and if the innovator is still viewed as a cost item that is easily cut—not provided with information of market need and the vocabulary of business and not being engaged as a full partner at the table along with the commercial team—then we are not changing the paradigm that got us into the problem in the first place.

So how do we break this cycle and do the heavier lift required to create startups based on scientific innovations—companies where the innovators and their team are respected and supported to take their ideas and move them forward as key members of the business team? Here are three ways to start the process of transforming the much touted Valley of Death into what it truly is: a Time of Brilliance, for innovators and their scientific innovations to build value and solve problems.

Build binocular vision. Creating a scientific innovation that can lead to a commercial outcome and broad impact requires the innovator to have both the lens of the market as well as a lens of science—in short, binocular vision. By ensuring scientists and engineers have direct access to market info and experts, you can ensure the scientific solution is more than an invention and is an innovation that answers a market need.

Don’t think you know what scientists want. Often the implicit or even explicit attitude from the business community is that a scientist wants to simply do the science and get the result. The corollary to this can then become “this is all they really want to do anyway, we’ll protect them and let them just be in the lab. We’ll let the business people build the business and create the innovation.” Remember, the more knowledgeable we all are, the more rapidly we can all help solve problems. We are integrated humans with integrated brains, and the wisdom of crowds clearly shows that informed people combined with broad diversity of thought, brought together to knowledgably solve a problem, provide a better solution—and an informed scientist can get you to the best solution faster.

Avoid the Tower of Babel. Remember any time in your life that even knowing one word of a foreign language helped you? Even if all you could say was please or thank you, it was enough to overcome a barrier? Learning business or science is like learning a new language. Yet if all each of us learns is one language—that of the market or science—and not even a few words of the other language, then our ability to communicate can become insular and restricted. No one is expecting a marketing expert to become a Ph.D. in nuclear physics or an engineer to become a PR expert overnight—but knowing and respecting each other’s vocabulary can go a long way.

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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