Don’t Listen To Your Critics, VCs Are Not Enough, and Other Lessons from Breakthrough Idea Forum

4/1/10Follow @gthuang

This week, I’ve learned a lot about game-changing ideas and how to think about making them work. Like anything meaningful, some of the lessons will take more time and effort to sink in. But here are five lessons to take away from our Xconomy Forum (“What’s Your Breakthrough Idea”) held at the University of Washington on Monday:

1. Not everything is, or should be, a breakthrough idea. Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners framed the whole discussion by pointing out that entrepreneurs have different motivations: some might want to make a lot of money whether or not they change the world; others may want to change the world whether or not they make much money. Either approach is perfectly valid; just be true to yourself.

2. Venture capital alone won’t sustain breakthrough ideas. VCs don’t fund new ideas or the invention process, said Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures. Instead, they fund “zillions of ‘me-too’ ideas,” he said. Which is why Myhrvold is trying to create a new “invention capital” marketplace—and why his company has awarded $315 million to individual inventors in the U.S. and has deals with more than 100 universities to support the invention process.

Meanwhile, Hanauer told me last week that most VCs don’t take risks anymore because the VC business model rewards those who can simply avoid a major screw-up. “The business model is toxic to risk-taking, because it’s so unbelievably profitable for the partners just if it doesn’t fail,” he said. (Of course, VCs will tell you that their model isn’t broken—because it isn’t.)

3. The proper mindset of breakthrough-idea thinking is to be “narrowly insane but not a total whack job,” as Myhrvold put it. By narrowly insane, he meant that inventors need to be crazy enough to think they can do something unprecedented, without being delusional. Put a different way, it’s helpful to be a “high-functioning contrarian,” as Hanauer says Jeff Bezos has described him. (“A low-functioning contrarian means you’re in prison,” Hanauer adds.) In other words, try to see the world differently, and imagine what would happen if things were arranged in other ways. Amazon.com, for example, delivered more than 10 times the selection of a brick-and-mortar store at a cost savings of more than 25 percent. That’s the kind of thinking that can transform an entire industry—in this case, those who sell books (for starters).

4. Part of being a good entrepreneur means not listening to your critics, or the entrenched interests. As Lee Hood from the Institute for Systems Biology and Integrated Diagnostics put it succinctly (I’m paraphrasing), people have seriously doubted him six or seven times in the past—and he’s been right every time. (He didn’t say how long it took to be proven right.) But the basic message was that if you want to change the world, you will meet with resistance—the people and companies in power don’t want things to change—but don’t let that deter you. Hanauer stressed the importance of … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.spreadingscience.com Richard Gayle

    Part of the disconnect between IT and biology may be due to a difference in the types of entrepreneurs attracted to each field.

    IT tends to pay off for development work in months. Biotech can take years if not decades.

    As an example, in 2008, there were no revenues from apps for the iPhone. A year and a half later, it is a $3 billion a year market, expected to be over $25 billion in 2013, after just 4 years.

    In biotech, we might be ready to consider filing an IND after 4 years, with another 5 or more years before approval.

    Those time frames are going to attract very different types of entrepreneurs, making it harder to find ones that overlap.

    – I liked the venue also although I wish they would fix the squeaky automatic door that kept opening and closing.