Maintaining Innovation

Technology Eye | Jan. 27, 2017

Recent decades have been characterized by an unprecedented burst of technological innovation, and modern economies have come to depend on continued innovation for competitiveness and growth. What were the factors that had to be in place to create that innovation, and what is needed to maintain it in the future?

Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London, United Kingdom, cited three basic but critical factors: Environment (including the regulatory environment, infrastructure and a culture that encourages and rewards innovation), resources (to include not just risk capital but also incubators, accelerators, and the kind of "patient capital” needed for basic research and other longer-term investment) and people. By “people” she meant not the widely lionized heroic lone inventor; but she stressed the importance of communities, particularly diverse communities: 40% of Nobel Prize winners since 1980, she noted, were immigrants to the countries in which they lived at the time of their award, and 50% of US “unicorns” – private companies valued at over $1 billion – were founded by immigrants to the US. Collaboration, and especially international collaboration, is something urgently in need of preservation, she said, in an era of backlash against globalization.

Patrick McCray, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, noted that the definition of innovation needs to be broadened and made more inclusive and holistic, citing relatively humble and unsung inventions like frequency modulation sound synthesis – a patent granted in 1975 and then licensed to Yamaha and one that, as McCray pointed out, actually reigned for many years as the most valuable, if not the shiniest, jewel in Stanford’s IP portfolio.

L. Rafael Reif, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), distinguished between two types of innovation: Creative or even brilliant ideas that harness existing platforms but do not require actual scientific research (a type exemplified by ride-sharing platform Uber); and another type that depends on basic scientific research. He emphasized the continuing need for basic research, and the concomitant need for patient capital.

Martin Stratmann, President of the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, challenged the conventional wisdom that imagines a simple sequential model for innovation pipelines, from basic research to applied research to product development. He noted that there’s more that separates basic and applied research than just methodology: basic research is driven, at bottom, by curiosity, while applied research is essentially goal-driven and goal-directed. Citing some examples of basic research undertaken with nothing but curiosity about the natural world that have had enabled unintended applied spin-offs, he listed quantum mechanics – ongoing now for the last 80 years, but now integral to LEDs and all manner of micro devices – and DNA research, without which we wouldn’t have most of our modern biomedicine

Stratmann argued that, if we as a society focus only on “innovation”, we’ll miss something fundamental. Pointing to the revolutionary gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, he noted that its inventors did not set out to find a tool for gene editing at all, but were only trying to identify the means by which bacteria defend themselves against viral attack, and found the editing technique almost by accident. Setting innovation as a primary goal, he said, is a mistake.

This point is heartily echoed by others. Gast, for instance, challenges the idea that discovery comes only from a problem-solving approach, quipping, “We don’t have a problem with gravitational waves,” but expressing full confidence that, now that they have been shown to be more than theoretical, humanity will ultimately benefit from studying them.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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