Archive for start-ups

Dec
27

Connectivity: Key to Successful Innovation

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How to Jump-Start Entrepreneurship” by Philip Delves Broughton is an op-ed piece in the Dec. 26 Wall Street Journal that wisely notes how complex the recipe for entrepreneurial success is. But the real magic sauce, he argues, is connectivity. Start-ups and innovators need to be connected to those who know how to solve the many problems they will face along the way. This connectivity is not easy to promote, but the Start-up America Partnership he discusses is doing exactly that by creating groups of entrepreneurs that can help other entrepreneurs forge the connections they need, such as connecting with D.C. lobbyists to assist with tasks requiring government support.

In my experience, the most successful entrepreneurs work hard to develop and maintain relationships with a wide variety of influencers and examples of success. The broad scope of connectivity may not be reflected by large numbers of connections, but by diverse and high-quality connections. The quality of the connection is crucial. Not just a name card in hand or a Twitter follower, but a person with whom meaningful exchanges have taken place and can take place in the future. These relationships can be acquaintances rather than long friendships, but they have the added quality that comes from time together, from sharing tips and best practices, from repeated encounters, and from periodic “pinging” through phone, email, or personal contact. The two parties see each other as interesting with something to offer to the other, and exchanges are perceived as having potential mutual value. These kind of relationships require deliberate efforts to create and maintain. Diverse, broad, and healthy relationships of this kind can lead to the connectivity that engenders success in entrepreneurial ventures and many other fields.

Categories : start-ups, strategy
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Sep
26

Why Smart Startups File Patents

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Startup companies, unlike our “too big to fail” banks, can’t afford to make too many Enormous Mistakes without perishing or losing much of their value. One of the Enormous Mistakes that some startups make is neglecting intellectual property. That includes neglecting opportunities to protect their business, as well as the need to make sure they aren’t infringing other patents. These are separate issues and require separate efforts and tools. Some of the common mistakes and misconceptions of startups regarding IP are addressed in the slideshow presentation below, “What Do Startups Need to Know about Patent Law” by Jeffrey Schox.

An important point that Schox makes is that reasons smart startups file patents aren’t necessarily because they expect to license their technology or successfully sue a competitor. But having an issued or pending patent with some degree of quality is essential for attracting investor support. Investors typically expect a startup (in many fields, at least) to have IP that can be of value to the business for many years to come and can help limit the harm of competitive copying. Without that in place, that startup is much less likely to get the funds needed to thrive.

Patents play different roles at different stages in the life of a company. But neglecting IP at any stage is an Enormous Mistake that can lead to extinction.

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Oct
21

The Tsunami of External Fatigue

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Innovators and business leaders doing their best to achieve commercial success need to understand the set of innovation fatigue factors that they face. These include personal factors due to the bad behavior of individuals; corporate or organizational fatigue factors reflecting inadequate systems, culture, or flawed judgment; and external fatigue factors due to the burdens of legislation, taxation, and challenges in the patent system, for example. The first two categories are factors where innovators and corporate leaders are in charge. The external category is the most difficult one because the challenges come from outside our sphere of influence, where the best efforts on our part can still face seemingly insurmountable challenges beyond our control.

One of the effects of uncertainty regarding the regulatory climate that business faces is a dangerous reduction in venture capital that is often needed for start-ups to succeed. Consider this ominous news story from Yahoo! about the drop in venture capital funding recently:

Venture capitalists poured less money into U.S. startups in the third quarter and split this among more companies, signaling that investors are trying to be more economical with their funds.

According to a study set to be released Friday, startup investments declined 7 percent to $4.8 billion in the July-September period, compared with $5.2 billion invested during the same three-month period in 2009. A total of 780 startups received funding during the quarter — 9 percent more than the 716 companies that took slices of the investment pie last year.

The study, which was conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association based on data from Thomson Reuters, said that much of the decline stemmed from a drop in large investments in clean technology. Funding in clean-tech startups, which include alternative energy, recycling, conservation and power supply companies, has been mercurial lately. It fell every quarter last year compared with the previous year, but has been climbing this year — until the third quarter.

This is a genuine red flag, consistent with many red flags that we are seeing. The co-founder of Home Depot, for example, recently criticized the federal government in an open letter to President Obama in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 15, 2010), explaining that Home Depot, founded during a past recession and now providing over 300,000 jobs to Americans, could never have been successfully founded in today’s climate where government, in his opinion, seems set on vilifying and punishing business rather than helping it to succeed.

We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.

If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it’s a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase—never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.

Meantime, you seem obsessed with repealing tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires.” . . . The wealth that was created by my investments wasn’t put into a giant swimming pool as so many elected demagogues seem to imagine. Instead it benefitted our employees, their families and our community at large.

Business leaders and innovators face many new burdens and uncertainties that can crush delicate start-ups and even thriving businesses. Increasing the burdens right now, whether through more regulations, higher taxes, or other measures with unintended anti-business consequences, seems likely to only increase innovation fatigue at this critical time in our nation’s history. I urge our leaders to carefully consider how small companies and start-ups are being affected, and how venture capital will be affected, by the changes that are being proposed and by the actions they’ve already taken.

It’s time for government to listen to the voice of the innovator.

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Oct
11

Engineers Interested in Innovation, Startups, and IP: Join Us at the 2010 AIChE Annual Meeting

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Chemical engineers interested in innovation and entrepreneurship should consider attending the AIChE 2010 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City. On Wednesday, Nov. 10, I will chair a session featuring four outstanding speakers on topics that should be of interest to many engineers, including university researchers, corporate researchers, and managers. If you are conducting research that could lead to a new business, if you are involved in leading or managing R&D, if you are part of an effort where intellectual property could make a difference, then you should attend our session, “Intellectual Assets in the Digital Era.” You need to register for this conference through AIChE.

Time: Wednesday, November 10, 2010: 8:30 AM-11:00 AM
Location: Salt Palace Convention Center, Grand Ballroom G, Salt Lake City, UT
Chair: Jeff Lindsay, Director of Solution Development, Innovationedge, Neenah, WI
Co-Chair: Ken Horton, Gore School of Business, Westminster College, Salt Lake City, UT

Schedule of Papers and Abstracts:
8:30 AM, Paper #406A, “Business Development, IP, and Manufacturing Success: Perspectives From Utah’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership” by David Sorensen, Executive Director of Utah’s Manufacturing Extension Program. (See biographical information below.)

Abstract: The Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Utah has assisted many companies in strengthening their strategy for success and continued growth. We will discuss what it takes to advance your business, including lessons relative to leadership, vision, intellectual property, and coping with changing regulations and policies.

9:10 AM, Paper #406b, “The Role of IP in Successful Startups,” Mike Alder, Director of Technology Transfer, Brigham Young University.

Abstract: Many AIChE members will be involved with a startup at some point in their career. While the capabilities of the management team is of utmost importance, in numerous cases, the success of the startup also depends on the quality of its intellectual property. In this era, an IP-savvy team can take several steps to secure competitive advantage and realize greater value from the technology, products, or services the company offers. This presentation will draw upon experience with many startups and startup teams and will provide guidance to researchers, business leaders, and future entrepreneurs on how to better prepare for success.

9:45 AM, Paper #406c, “An Introduction to IP Law: The Underpinnings of Intellectual Assets,” Ken Horton, Kirton & McConkie, Salt Lake City, UT

Abstract: An understanding of the basics of intellectual property law can help chemical engineers in advancing their own research, in evaluating competitive efforts, in building their own business, or in general advancing their career. This presentation will cover some of the key concepts that engineers should know, including the nature of patents, the different kinds of patents (provisional, utility, design), the role of trademarks and copyrights, what it takes to be patentable, and how changes in patent law may affect your career and business.

10:20 AM, Paper #406d, “Cost-Effective Pursuit of IP in a Down Economy,” by Jonathan Lee

Abstract: How does one get the most protection and benefit from intellectual property when the economy is down? How can patents and other forms of intellectual property be obtained in a cost effective manner when budgets are tight? In this presentation, an experienced patent attorney shares insights into cost effective IP with guidance directed to managers, research leaders, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

Biographical information:

David Sorensen
Mr. Sorensen has over 35 years of experience in a wide variety of technical and managerial assignments requiring comprehensive knowledge in several disciplines relating to engineering, manufacturing, information technology and business systems. He has been directly responsible for major contracts with industry and government agencies and has a proven record of technical competence, customer relations, and business planning in rapidly expanding technical companies. Mr. Sorensen has held increasingly responsible positions in product and service organizations. He is innovative, resourceful, and aggressive in accomplishing assigned responsibilities with major strengths in strategic planning, marketing and management. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering Science and a Masters in Manufacturing Engineering Technology from Brigham Young University.

Since 1995 he’s been the Director of the Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP-Utah), serving primarily the 6,200 manufacturers in the state of Utah. MEP-Utah was selected to initiate and manage the NIST Information Technology Network for over 60 MEP Centers nationwide. Mr. Sorensen is also a BYU adjunct faculty member and the Associate Dean of Technology, Trades and Industry at Utah Valley State College. With a staff of 18, in one year MEP-Utah helped create or save 2,719 jobs in Utah, increased manufacturing sales by more than $121 million and increased employee payroll by more than $84 million.

He’s been the Chairman & CEO for Echo Solutions, a start-up software products and services company; Executive VP of Eyring Research Institute; General Manager of EG&G Services; Director of Engineering at EG&G Idaho Inc.; Manager of Architect Engineering and Construction at Aerojet Nuclear Company and Manager of Power Generation Equipment at Bunker Ramo. He also has experience with GE’s Nuclear Instrumentation as a Senior Applications Engineer, and in engineering positions at Kennecott Copper, Intermountain Industries, and F.C. Torkelson Engineers.

Michael Alder
Mike is Director of Technology Transfer at Brigham Young University, where his work has been nationally recognized by BusinessWeek and others for their success. Mike is also Chair of the Board for WestCAMP Inc. where he has also chaired the National Centers of Excellence (NCOE), a division of WestCAMP. Mike is formerly the CEO of the Biotechnology Association of Alabama. He was also a Venture Partner with Redmont Venture Partners, Inc. He has been heavily involved in the founding of Tranzyme, Inc.; Vaxin, Inc.; Folia, Inc.; Chlorogen, Inc.; Allvivo, Inc. and Cr3, Inc. All but one of these are biotechnology companies (Folia produces specialty biopolymers).

Mr. Alder has 30 years of experience in leading technology-based startup companies. He was previously CEO of Emerging Technology Partners in Birmingham, Alabama from 1997 to 2003. Prior to coming to Alabama in 1994 he co-founded the Grow Utah Fund that focused on creating technology-based businesses. In 1989 he was asked by the Utah Governor to head the State’s Office of Technology Development, which he did for 5 years as its Executive Director, helping bring Utah’s Centers of Excellence programs to national prominence. In 1973 he founded NPI, a plant biotechnology company in Salt Lake City, Utah and served as President, COO and Vice Chairman of that company for 15 years as it grew to over 700 employees.

Ken Horton
Ken Horton is a member of Kirton & McConkie‘s Intellectual Property Practice Section in Salt Lake City. His practice includes domestic and foreign patent prosecution, patent opinions, intellectual property litigation (including both state and federal court actions), domestic and foreign trademark prosecution, trademark opinions, copyrights, trade secrets, intellectual property evaluations and due diligence, as well as technology and intellectual property agreements. Mr. Horton has extensive experience in both pharmaceutical and semiconductor technologies. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of intellectual property law and strategy, speaking both at the 2007 and 2010 A.I.C.H.E. annual conferences and the 2009 A.C.S. annual conference. Additionally, Mr. Horton is an Associate Professor in these topics in the MBA Technology Management Program at the Gore School of Business of Westminster College.

Jonathan Lee
Jonathan Lee is a registered patent attorney and a member of the Utah State Bar practicing at ALG (AdvantEdge Law Group). His practice focuses on adding real-world value to companies, both large and small, by acquiring, securing, and protecting intellectual property rights.

Mr. Lee has prepared and successfully prosecuted hundreds of patent applications throughout his career, primarily in the electrical, electro-mechanical, and computer engineering fields. He currently helps a number of Fortune 1000 companies manage and develop their domestic and worldwide patent portfolios. He also regularly counsels clients in other aspects of intellectual property law, including litigation, licensing, and opinion work, as well as due diligence examinations, copyrights and trademarks, and patent reexamination proceedings.

Prior to joining ALG, Mr. Lee worked for nationally recognized law firms in Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mr. Lee was recently selected as a Mountain States Rising Star by Super Lawyers, a peer-reviewed publication.

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Jul
01

Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Amyris Biotechnologies logoIn my ongoing work on analyzing the intellectual property landscape in biofuels, one of the most impressive companies I’ve run across is Amyris, a renewable products company whose clever use of synthetic biology goes far beyond biofuels. Amyris was founded by Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, and Jack D. Newman who met at Berkeley and founded Amyris in 2003, headquartered in Emeryville, California. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they first developed their technology under a non-profit initiative to provide a reliable and affordable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. It was viewed as a long-shot, but they found success that paved the way for the growth of the company into other areas. They are now developing new microbial strains that can produce other useful molecules from renewable feedstocks. This industrial synthetic biology platform is providing alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. he extremely useful molecule farnesene is an important part of their business. It provides a compound that can be used to produce flavors, perfumes, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel, and other products.

This week Amyris created a stir by announcing a record number of deals and partnerships for a single week (a record among bioenergy companies, according to Biofuels Digest). These partnerships include P&G, Total, Soliance, Cosan, M&G Finanziaria, and Shell:

Amyris has taken it up a notch with a series of stunners surrounding its synthetic farsenene, which it has named Biofene – the first product that Amyris is seeking to produce at commercial scale.

Beyond its success this week with Biofene announcements, which are the basis for the P&G, M&G and Soliance partnerships — there are the broader arrangements with Cosan to develop a platform in renewable chemicals, and the equity agreement with Total that will provide needed capital as well as a broader platform for Amyris’s expansion into hydrocarbon fuels.

The mysterious agreement with Shell, regarding diesel, is one to watch. The decidedly vague disclosure was buried in Amyris’ amended S-1A registration statement, but not otherwise mentioned in a flurry of press releases from the company as it promotes its expansion in this pre-IPO environment. Shell Western Trading & Supply is one of 17 Shell trading companies that buy and sell to customers within and outside of Shell.

This news shows an interesting example of companies forming partnerships with an innovative start-up with great technology and apparently highly valuable IP. According to my Patbase search, Amyris has 21 patent families, quite a large number for such a young company. They clearly have been active and aggressive in pursuing patent protection, and those patents are critical for the meaningful partnerships they are now forming. It’s a great unfolding story of open innovation and technology transfer.

The story extends beyond the US. They have operations in Brazil, for example, which is one of the world’s hotbeds for bioenergy, bioproducts, and collaborative innovation.

Further information comes from today’s article, “Amyris: farnesene and the pursuit of value, valuations, validation and vroom,” also from Biofuels Digest.

Jun
16

Guerrilla Development: Brian Argo Shares Innovation Lessons from His Work with Solar Cells

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Today I’m pleased to share a guest column from a friend, Brian Argo of Brian Argo & Associates LLC. Brian specializes in technical scouting, intellectual property searches, and formulation of cleaners and personal care products. He has a wide variety of experience in innovation and offers an interesting perspective that I thought would be useful for readers of Conquering Innovation Fatigue and this blog. –Jeff Lindsay

Brian Argo

Brian Argo

Since I was a kid, I have always rooted for the mad scientist in monster movies. It’s not the diabolical nature of their work that I found so appealing, but the willingness to take on the world for a cause that you’re committed too. Although I have spent 23 years happily developing various consumer products for companies like Kimberly-Clark and Clorox, I’m also interested solar power. My solar project started in 2003 at Christmas time during a lunch with my former graduate research group. They had a very cool way to grow nanoscale metal hairs out of an insulated template. They thought this would be the Holy Grail for solar power, but couldn’t see a good way to produce this at a large scale. After a few dozen napkins, it became clear that there were viable technical options to do so.

Our idea was simply to form a microscopic mold as a template, fill it with metal, and remove part of the template leaving individual metal hairs surrounded by an insulator. Then, we could use any number of methods to coat the hairs and form solar cells. At the end of the day, its not too far technically removed from fabricating a micro scale Popsicle using a semiconductor foundry.

When our technical work started in earnest, we thought we might have been a bit deluded to think we scooped the big boys of the world (GE, BP, Sharpe). Off to my basement I went. I worked through the physics. I looked through hundreds of journal articles. I read through over 3000 patent abstracts. All the while, simply using Google, the US PTO, and the WIPO search engines. While I prefer using search engines like Aureka, it really isn’t to bad doing a search manually either. As long as you are short on money and don’t mind working like a mad man, it’s not a problem. I was worried that I must have missed something so I double-checked my search against an IP search using artificial intelligence. No significant prior art came up.

It become evident that geometry of the nano scale hairs was perfect to create a super solar cell. The solar cells are probably coated with what are referred to as nano dots or at least coatings so thin that phenomena that cause electrical losses due to excessive thickness disappeared. The cells are also super light absorbent and conserve rare materials. This was not lost on the theoreticians. However, their further belief was that semiconductor equipment is cost prohibitive for the use in solar cells, which is correct for machines found in state-of-the-art foundries. What they missed was that older, more primitive equipment was sufficient to make the nano-wire solar cell cost effectively. General George Patton once said, “If we’re all thinking the same thing, someone isn’t thinking.” In retrospect, groupthink in the solar industry left us a brief crack of time, which we used to patent and develop the technology. In the years that followed, we learned a lot of work had started a short time after ours.

The intellectual property needed to be done flawlessly. In my mind, that meant that I should draft the applications myself. However, the group voted to go with a big name national legal firm. Since we were bootstrapping the enterprise, we were starting with a provisional patent application. To save on legal fees, I drafted the application. Next, I spent the two weeks bringing an entry-level patent attorney up to speed on our technology, and then she let us know that the application was excellent and she supported filing it. No added claims. No significant improvements to the specification. Only a big “atta boy” and an invoice for $15,000. I think that when you work with a large legal firm and you are a fledgling startup, it is very unlikely that you will get the “A” level support. In the end, I suppose I did what I set out to do; we were just poorer for the experience. My only other qualm with our process is that our team viewed IP development as an ancillary activity. Some people just don’t get the value of IP until it is too late. Eventually excellent counsel was located through a recommendation of a former colleague, and the final application was done well.

Now all we needed was money. We chose two avenues, grants for academic research and angel money. Neither path is easy, but we managed to get several grants. The grants were nice to keep members of the team solvent, but they can also be a trap where too much focus is on writing papers. We found this to be the case, and eventually refocused fund raising on angel investors. That is not easy either. To get angel money, you need to have a good idea, and you need to have someone they know on your team. People who are trusted by angel investors or venture capitalists are not necessarily people that can be trusted. I cannot over emphasize how difficult it is to find a good person that meets that criterion. Mark Twain once said “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” You cannot do too much background work. Fund raising last year was not fun. A Nobel Prize winner, a Stanford electrical engineer who graduated top his class in two and a half years, and few dozen other technical leaders, vetted us out. It was our experience that the complexity of the idea got lukewarm responses or ridicule from VC’s with little technical depth, but fantastic responses from investors with high levels of technical skill.

As grants and angel money trickled in, I frantically yet frugally raced to develop a prototype always working to stay one step ahead of the money. One problem was that there was no other technical support. Another problem was that manually performing operations that are normally automated around the clock is challenging. After many months of grueling work, it was gratifying to find that everything worked as I thought it would. Finally, individual investors gave us the money we needed to enter into long-term process development. The project has been moving forward according to plan. However, my personal and business priorities were not a match with the new management of the company, and the company no longer employs me. I am back in the consumer products business enjoying a brisk consulting business. This type of venture is not for anyone with a weak stomach for long hours, high risk, or high stress. However, if you are willing to pay the price and can work with trustworthy people, it can be the most satisfying and financially rewarding adventure in your career.

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The lifeblood of innovation is capital. Investment of capital is the primary difference between great ideas and great teams that go nowhere and those that change the world. From the airplane to the iPod, from wonder drugs to wonder software, innovation requires invested capital to bring concepts to commercial reality. Angel investors play a crucial role in the ecosystem of invention, but they may soon be shut down by Congress in their efforts to “protect” Americans from financial risk.

Risk is a dirty word for those who don’t understand business. Wouldn’t it be nice if government could just protect us from the risk of failure and ensure that we are always safe? But this kind of thinking means stagnation, captivity, and the death of innovation, for the opportunity to succeed inevitably is shadowed by the risk of failure. If success is guaranteed, why put forth the effort to create and innovate? If a venture is protected from failure, we are also protected from the kind of success that inspires innovators and their backers to undergo risk.

Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council has boldly and bravely weighed in on Congressional plans to protect us from risk, plans that would give them even more control over the things they seem to understand least while making it more difficult than ever for innovators to succeed. Tom Still challenges the financial reform legislation proposed by Senator Dodd and points out that his efforts to protect us will crush angel investing, which in turn will stop many innovators from having a shot at success. Ultimately, Dodd seeks to “protect” people from investing their own money the way they want to, and the unintended consequence will be a painful blow to innovation. Tom Still’s article is “Angels on the head of a sharp pin: Financial reform bill poses threat,” published April 21, 2010 at Inside Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Technology Council. Here is an excerpt:

The financial sector reform bill being pushed by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., takes direct aim at the wings of angel investors for reasons that defy explanation. If passed, this “Washington-knows-best” attempt to regulate some of the nation’s most productive risk-takers could destroy the entrepreneurial economy.

Angel investors are often entrepreneurs who hit a home run in their own start-up businesses and who want to reinvest in other young companies. Angel investors are generally strong business executives with an eye for innovation, and they’re not afraid to take a calculated gamble on companies that are too new to get financing from venture capitalists or too risky for banks.

They usually invest close to home and most often as individuals or within a family, but increasingly angels invest as members of angel networks or angel funds that offer some safety in numbers and more partners to screen potential deals.

In Wisconsin, angel investors have been in the vanguard of fostering the state’s early stage economy. Five years ago, there were only a handful of angel networks in Wisconsin. Today, there are nearly two-dozen networks and funds – and they’re not shy about rolling the dice on Wisconsin companies in sectors such as biotechnology, information technology, medical device, advanced manufacturing and “cleantech.” …

But if Dodd has his way, these individualistic investors will be regulated out of existence.

The Restoring American Financial Stability Act, of which Dodd is the chief sponsor, would tighten regulation of the nation’s financial system in ways large and small. It contains three provisions that would effectively kill angel investing in the United States:

  1. It would require start-up companies to register with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, and wait at least 120 days for SEC review, before trying to raise money. Currently, fledgling companies can raise money from accredited investors without regulatory approval. Four months is an eternity in the life of a start-up company, and most would die in the vine before they ever get a chance to grow.
  2. It would redefine who is an angel. Accredited investors, who are people deemed wealthy enough to invest in start-ups, would be limited to those individuals with more than $2.5 million in assets (up from $1 million today) or a personal income of $450,000 per year (up from $250,000). This will dramatically decrease the supply of angels, which the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Venture Research estimated at 259,000 in 2009. Those angels invested $17.6 billion in about 57,000 deals.
  3. It would subject investors and start-up companies to state-by-state rules versus a single set of SEC standards. Along with the new SEC filing requirement, that would add red tape, time and cost to the investment process.

In its frenzy to clamp down on Wall Street, Congress is threatening an investment community that fosters innovation, mentors young companies and generally cares about how the economy is faring where they live. Angels have helped to create some of today’s biggest companies – Apple, Amazon, Google and many more – usually without putting anyone’s money at risk other than their own.

Angel investing isn’t perfect; the average return on investment proves that. But it’s precisely the kind of bottom-up, largely self-regulated economic activity the nation needs as it struggles to create new companies and jobs. Only those federal lawmakers intent on a top-down, command-and-control economy would think otherwise.

We have enough innovation fatigue factors on our backs already. Clamping down on one of the major arteries that provides capital to start-ups and entrepreneurs is not going to enhance circulation in the atrophying limbs of this economy. We need to back down and let the private sector thrive on its own, taking on both risk and failure, and when we fail, let us fail instead of taking from those who succeed to prop up failures deemed “too big” to fail. The free market offers powerful solutions to some of the problems we face and powerful incentives for innovation, if we can stay out of the way.

Kudos to Tom Still for his insights into the risks Dodd’s bill poses.

Dec
07

Beware the Unintended Innovation-Killing Consequences of Laws and Policies

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The road to innovation fatigue is paved with good intentions embodied in laws, regulations, and even corporate policies. Leaders at all levels must be aware of uninteded innovation-killing consequences that may follow from their good intentions. Staying in touch with the “voice of the innovator,” as we advocate in Conquering Innovation Fatigue, is vital in avoiding such pitfals.

The Wall Street Journal from Dec. 4 offers two columns with examples of innovation fatigue factors that can be introduced by well-intended actions. The first article I wish to mention is “Near-Zero Rates are Hurting the Economy,” an opinion column from David Malpass, president of Encima Global, LLC. He argues that the artificially low interest rates created by the Federal Reserve Bank in the name of rescuing the US economy have actually been driving capital overseas and starving small companies–the leading sources of most innovation, economic growth and job creation, as studies from the Kaufmann Foundation and others have shown. Here is an excerpt:

[M]ore than a year after the heart of the panic, the Fed is still promising near-zero interest rates for an extended period and buying over $3 billion per day of expensive mortgage securities as part of a $1.25 trillion purchase plan. Capital is being rationed not on price but on availability and connections. The government gets the most, foreigners second, Wall Street and big companies third, with not much left over.

The irony of the zero-rate policy, coupled with Washington’s preference for a weak dollar, is a glut of American capital in Asia (as corporations and investors shun the weakening U.S. currency) and a shortage at home. For gold and oil, the low-rate policy works, weakening the dollar so commodity prices go up and providing traders with ample funds to buy into the expanding bubble. Those markets are almost daring the Fed to try to break out of its zero-rate box.

But for small businesses and new workers, capital rationing is devastating, spelling business failures and painful layoffs. Thousands of start-ups won’t launch due to credit shortages, in part because the government and corporations took more credit than they needed (because it was so cheap).

Already countries with higher interest rates, Australia for one, are viewed as less risky because they have room to cut rates if there’s another emergency. This wins them capital and jobs that might otherwise be ours.

According to International Monetary Fund data, U.S. GDP has fallen to 24% of world GDP from 32% in 2001. And as U.S. capital escapes the weak dollar and high tax rates, the U.S. share of world equity market capitalization has fallen to 30% from 45%. This leaves the U.S. alone with Japan at the bottom of the monetary heap, with rate expectations so low they repel investment.

When single individuals or organizations make policies that affect millions, it is far too easy for good intentions to translate into new problems, unless the decision maker is essentially omniscience. Failing ominiscience, perhaps market forces should be given a try, allowing the invisible hand mediated by the mechanism of price to determine the right allocation of resources. But even with a reluctance to use market forces to set interest rates and allocate capital, wiser decisions could be made by policy makers if they understood the personal side of innovation and the barriers faced by the innovators seeking to propel our economy forward. Unfortunately, the real innovation engines of the future aren’t likely to be powerful, highly connected people today, but may be a lone entrepreneur or president of a small company today that could grow and create many thousands of jobs, if only given a chance. Giving credit and bailouts to well-connected dinosaurs can be based on good intentions, but it may be a misallocation of resources that only makes things worse for the most important prospective innovators and job creators out there.

A second article in the Dec. 4 Journal is “Sarbanes-Oxley on Trial” (p. A24), an op-ed piece that briefly mentions the economic burdens this 2002 law has imposed, and urges government to modify its implementation to be more accountable. There is much more that could be said, some of which we discuss in our book. Sarbanex-Oxley is especially burdensome on small, innovative companies and has driven many innovators to look outside the United States in launching a start-up. Intended to make businesses safer and more accontable, it has slowed job creation and economic growth, in the eyes of some experts. Unintended consequences. It’s something every policy maker and business leader needs to be worried about. Are you listening to the voice of the innovators who have to live with your decisions? That could be the difference between success and innovation fatigue.

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Almost like something out of a Utopian science fiction novel, two neighboring research communities, Fusionopolis and Biopolis, stand as R&D beacons to scientists and companies across the globe, rising from the small island nation of Singapore and its remarkable research park, One North. Fusionopolis and Biopolis are visible fruits of a dramatic new focus on innovation in Singapore. Not just innovation in biomedical fields, the specialty of Biopolis, or innovation in advanced science and engineering at Fusionopolis, but innovation in innovation itself. The leaders of Singapore, recognizing that innovation is the key to the future of this small nation with so few natural resources, are developing new ways to innovate, to collaborate, and to stimulate commercialization. As they find new ways to collaborate with companies and researchers around the world, they are striving for the upper end of the Ascent of Collaboration scale, guided by the nation’s most prominent scientific ministry devoted to innovation, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR.

Singapore, whose name comes from the Malay word for “Lion City,” has been a riddle to the West for years. The 5th wealthiest country in the world based on GDP per capita, it is also one of the smallest (250 square miles) and one of only four remaining city-states in the world. It is truly a melting pot, a nation of multiple ethnicities and religions among its 5 million people, with four national languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Chinese. How can such a small island city with few natural resources have become so prosperous? How can a community with so much diversity seem to have so much unity? How can a country known for order and discipline be a hotbed of creativity and innovation?

Boon Swan Foo and A*STAR

Boon Swan Foo, Executive Chairman at Exploit Technologies

Boon Swan Foo, Executive Chairman at Exploit Technologies

Singapore’s booming emphasis on science, technology, and innovation were on my mind when I contacted Boon Swan Foo, Executive Chairman of Exploit Technologies, the strategic marketing and commercialization arm of A*STAR. A*STAR’s mission is to foster world-class scientific research and to develop human capital for a knowledge based Singapore. It funds billions of dollars of research, drives collaboration between global companies and Singapore, and works to commercialize the fruits of its R&D work.

A*STAR comprises the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC), the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL), the A*STAR Graduate Academy (A*GA) and the Corporate Planning and Administration Division (CPAD).

Boon oversees the commercialization and spin-off activities for A*STAR’s intellectual property and technologies. Under his leadership, A*STAR has accumulated a portfolio of close to 3,000 active patents, granted more than 250 licenses for its technologies, and created a portfolio of two dozen spin-off companies. Estimated business revenue to be generated by licensees from sales of products and provision of services using or incorporating A*STAR’s technologies is projected to be over S$500M.

Insights from the Interview

Boon Swan Foo proudly explained that his nation is pursuing and promoting innovation in numerous ways, not just by funding world-class R&D centers. Singapore is innovating in its educational systems, in its airlines and airport system, in its management of ports, in its roads and traffic management, and so forth.

“Our civil servants are very enterprising,” Boon explained. “One does not have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. They are intrapreneurs rather than entrepreneurs.”

The economy of Singapore is often described as an entrepot economy, in which imports are purchase and given added value which are then exported. Singapore imports numerous raw materials that are then converted to pharmaceuticals, chemicals, computer chips, electronics, and other goods for export. The Port of Singapore is the world’s busiest. Further, it has an exceptionally well educated work force as a result of the nation’s education policy, which helps achieve success in their business operations and in innovation.

Now R&D is becoming an increasingly important part of Singapore. Over 3% of their $200 billion GDP is spend on R&D. They know innovation is the key for a bright future. The goal is to develop pools of ideas in targeted fields and also to develop deep pools of local talent. Read More→

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