Archive for voice of the innovator
Be careful about the vehicle you’ve been driving. As sturdy, tangible, useful, and inventive as it looks to you, it may turn out to be merely an abstraction, perhaps nothing more than the mere idea of “transportation” or “going places,” making it unworthy of the thousands of patents protecting its numerous technologies — if the USPTO and America’s elite judges get their way. An abstract automobile? You don’t want to be caught dead driving one. Unfortunately, since the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) just ruled that an MRI machine is abstract and thus not patentable under the odious and vague principles of the Supreme Court’s recent Alice decision, it could be that automobiles and virtually every other machine under the sun could be next on the anti-patent chopping block. Your trusty Toyota or your faithful Ford are about to go abstract on you, courtesy of the USPTO. Look out.
In the PTAB’s elite view, as Gene Quinn explains, all the physical wizardry of the mighty MRI machine as claimed in a recent patent application for an improved MRI is just an abstract idea based on the abstraction of “classification.” It defies logic and defies the requirements of the Alice decision and the USPTO’s rules for applying Alice, but the PTAB has become a patent munching zombie that doesn’t seem bound by logic or law. They are one of the strongest forces promoting innovation fatigue. Many innovators are just giving up or going to other nations where IP rights are more meaningful.
The anti-patent forces that have taken hold of far too many influential posts in America view property rights and especially intellectual property rights as a barrier to the ideal society they envision. If only we could get rid of patents, they seem to think, drug prices would fall and Obamacare, for example, would not be such a disaster. But the bounty some intellectuals promise by weakening property rights is an illusion, for without IP rights, what is the incentive to take on the risks and costs of innovation if you cannot benefit from the occasional successes that come from your uncertain work? If your hit product can be taken and marketed by others who did not have to spend so much time and money developing it, then the inventor is often at a competitive disadvantage to everyone else. Why bother?
America’s war on patents is a war on the future of innovation. It’s a war we cannot afford to lose.
Many large companies take a tortoise approach to innovation and stay as hidden within their shells as possible, even some who advocate open innovation. Tortoise companies may have creative R&D staff, including many scientists doing good work, but they keep these inventors hidden in the shell rather than encouraging them to publish or present their work.
The hares, on the other hand, take greater risks as they frequently step out of their comfortable burrows. They let their inventors not just show up at conferences and other events, but take the podium and present. Or, when appropriate, publish their work in major journals. As a result, their inventors become known and get to know many others with related interests. It is that visibility that allows potential partners to find them, to learn about their work, and to come forward with proposals for partnership or further innovation. These visible minds become more highly connected and able to contribute more directly and effectively to the open innovation needs of the Corporation. They are connected to other industries and better connected to the market, and may be more likely to recognize ways to adapt their inventions for better success.
The extreme of tortoise innovator may well be the large body of government scientists that conducted high-tech R&D for decades in the old Soviet Union. One of my past open innovation activities at Innovationedge included traveling to Moscow to assist Russia (more specifically, ISTC: http://www.istc.ru/) in finding external partners for the huge body of invention that arose from government labs in past work (this public information: e.g., I am listed as a speaker on the published agenda of a biotech meeting in Moscow with a presentation entitled “Innovationedge Partnership to bring innovation from Russia to the U.S.”). Unfortunately, much of that work in the Soviet Union, in my opinion, was dominated by deep drilling into highly isolated wells of expertise, with advanced technologies that were unconnected to real-world industry and markets. Creating connections and finding market opportunities after the fact (as in “answers in search of problems”) is much less efficient that developing inventions tailored to meet real market needs in the first place. The scientists were some of the best in the world, but they were working in isolation, often in great secrecy, with little ability to discuss their work with outsiders and obtain needed feedback and insights to make their work more useful outside their immediate focus. Looking back in time at the fruits of past Soviet era R&D to me looked like closed innovation to an extreme.
My observation of the isolation of Russian R&D relative to industry and markets is consistent with the detailed observation and analysis by Dina Williams in “Russia’s innovation system: reflection on the past, present and future” in The International Journal of Transitions and Innovation Systems, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2011, p. 394-412, available via Academia.edu at http://www.academia.edu/1207385/Russias_innovation_system_reflection_on_the_past_present_and_future (free download with registration).
Success in open innovation and even in making conventional internal innovation more successful can be enhanced when innovators “get out more often” and increase their visibility in relevant communities. Innovation is frequently about crossing boundaries and making new connections, and open innovation almost by definition involves reaching past one’s own corporate boundaries to find solutions outside. What better way to do this than by having innovators physically or virtually stepping outside those boundaries and being visible to potential partners?
One of my favorite experiences during my days at Innovationedge involved seeing a technology go from an inventor’s garage to a multinational corporation where it is now being commercialized globally. A key event in that story involved speaking at technical conference where my presentation included some information about our client’s invention. Afterwards, I was approached by an R&D leader from a significant corporation who wanted to know more. There was much more work after this—open innovation success is rarely fast and easy—but that new connection took us on a path toward success. Related stories occur frequently when innovation is shared. But silent companies who rely on their tortoise shell eventually find that solid defense is irrelevant. Sometimes, the prizes go not to those who best hide behind their fortifications but to those who cross the finish line in the race for innovation.
In many large corporations, there’s a painful and frequently repeated scenario of invention theft that we treat in several ways in the book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. The invention theft I’m thinking of today is not from foreign spies or evil competitors. It is internal theft, wherein a powerful employee or team within a corporation takes credit for another individual’s or team’s innovation. Sometimes the theft is so blatant that a powerful person files a patent in his or her own name, leaving off the name of the real inventor. Sometimes the real inventors are told to drop the project completely and hand over the keys of the new vehicle they have created so that someone else can ride it across the finish line and take all the glory.
When this happened to a truly brilliant man in a large company where I was providing some guidance in the past, I warned him that his kind of behavior was deadly for the future of their company. When people lose trust for their company and fear that their innovations will be stolen, they clam up, shut down their innovation engines, and save their best thinking for someone else, such as their own business one day or a future employer. When people don’t get any credit for what they do, they quit doing. If a company tolerates or even rewards internal invention theft and doesn’t zealously seek to reward true inventors, real inventors move toward secrecy or inactivity and the light of innovation goes dark. This is the fast and easy way to bring your company to your own version of the Dark Ages.
Yes, time travel is easy. You can go back in time by decades or centuries when you crush innovation by allowing it to be stolen from within. Going backwards is surprisingly fast. Once you feel the pain of your mistake, clawing your way back to the modern world might take a little longer than your think. Actual, most companies shrouded in the mists of the Dark Ages never realize what they’ve been doing wrong because they are out of touch with the voice of the innovators within. They can spend a lot on consultants solving the wrong problems and talking to the wrong people and never rebuild the trust they have shattered. When it comes to long-term corporate innovation success, trust between employees and the company is everything.
As we discuss in Conquering Innovation Fatigue, the profit motive can be important for inventors but is often not the real incentive behind the quest to invent. Steps that eliminate the opportunity to profit from invention, though, can be serious barriers to a nation’s innovation potential. The profit motive can be important for prospective innovators. However, a focus on profits can be utterly destructive to innovation within a corporation, where the incentives to those who lead other would-be innovators can create new barriers that kill the innovation future of the company. Ironically, what can be a helpful incentive for innovation to an individual can easily become a disincentive once distorted by the internal workings of a corporation. This is illustrated in recent analysis from Clayton Christensen. See an overview in the article “Clayton Christensen: How Pursuit of Profits Kills Innovation and the U.S. Economy” at Forbes.com. Christensen argues that ratio-based metrics for profitability distort corporate thinking and reward behavior that ultimately destroys the future of the corporation by creating short-term benefits in apparent profitability. We illustrate a related problem in the book with the Apple Tree Analogy, in which metrics for short-term profitability for an apple harvester get a dramatic boost when the apple trees are toppled, making it much faster to harvest the fruit. The future, though, becomes barren.
Corporations need to carefully consider the metrics they use for profitability, as Christensen teaches, and unlearn some of the sacred concepts they were given in business schools. They should also go one step further an consider the impact of their metrics on not just the long-term growth of the company as a whole, but also the individual innovator and the innovation culture within the company. Listening to the voice of the innovator inside the corporation should be an important exercise for its top leaders.
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.
In May 2010 I was invited to speak at a conference of WTA (the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association) about innovation lessons for the telecommunications industry from our recently published book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Here is a condensed version of the presentation. I’ll do another Pixetell soon with some additional content.
Can’t help mentioning this: I had a technical problem with the above Pixetell and sent an email to their tech support team. I had a response within minutes. In fact, I had a phone call – the kind that takes real people using real time – and the quickly helped me troubleshoot the problem and get this post working. Wow! Miracles still happen–or at least great customer service. Love Pixetell. Great way to turn PowerPoints or whatever you have on a computer plus your voice into a recorded presentation that you can share with a URL, embed into a blog, or save as a movie. Pixetell is a product of Ontier, Inc.
In late 2009, I was invited to speak at Singapore’s Innovation and Enterprise Week 2009, an event held at Biopolis and sponsored by A*STAR, the world-class research organization of the Singaporean government, in collaboration with Exploit Technologies, the tech transfer arm of A*STAR. While I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss our book, the important thing to me was the opportunity to learn more about that amazing country and their bold approach to promoting innovation and technology. In my presentation for the large crowd at Innovation and Enterprise Week, I discussed the fascinating parallels between the Singapore experiment and the evolving experiment in innovation in my state of Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery represent a brilliant approach to combining the best of public and private innovation.
Below are three video segments from my presentation. A couple of friends in Singapore took the video. There are a few gaps in sound and so forth, but I hope you can understand it. Don’t miss my lame magic trick in segment 3. They seemed to like it–proof again of the great courtesy that one finds in Singapore. In all seriousness, I think there are important lessons about innovation that can be gleaned by inspecting both the Singaporean system and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which include the Morgridge Institute for private sector research and the public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Madison and Singapore are on opposite sides of the world, but on the same side of the innovation spectrum, at the leading edge.
Update: On April 24, I posted a newly recorded and shortened Pixetell presentation covering the basic information I shared in Singapore, without the magic or other excursions.
I am deeply grateful to the many people who kindly shared their time to help me prepare for the presentation, including Sangtae Kim, John Wiley, Charles Hoslett, Carl Gulbrandsen and Janet Kelly from the Wisconsin side (Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and WARF), plus Boon Swan Foo, Seito Wei Peng, and Sze Tiam Lin at Exploit Technologies in Singapore.
The North American paper industry suffers from a largely undeserved image problem. Many view it as an antiquated smokestack industry, when it has been a leader in exciting areas in technology and business practice. Fans of biofuels and green energy, for example, should know about the pioneeing efforts from the forest bioproducts industries, including many paper companies. “Green energy” from forest biomass has been the basis for economic success in pulp production for decades. A kraft mill burning black liquor is a stellar example of recovering useful energy from the byproducts of a renewable resource, coupled with smart recycling and regeneration of chemicals.
The industry has also been an important part of advances in practical aspects of RFID technology, in supply chain management, in green labeling and packaging, and in many other area. In nanotechnology, papermakers have actually been dealing with nanoparticles and complex colloids for decades, producing increasingly useful and practical products built with nanotechnology employed at a massive scale. In plant genetics, crop management, and stewardship over bio-resources, the forest products industry have demonstrated world-class capabilities and results. Industry stewardship has led to more trees and forest lands in the United States than we had a century ago. Advances in plant management have led to almost miraculous results such as the ability of carefully managed plantations of eucalyptus trees in Brazil to yield trees that can be harvested after just five years – and perhaps even less in the near future.
But with the proud history of innovation and leadership that I see in the forest products industry, it pains me to see how little recognition it received, and how little sense of that tradition seems to be alive in the industry today. On too many counts, the industry appears to be seized with innovation fatigue.
In the new book from John Wiley and Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, we identify sources of innovation fatigue factors in three primary areas: the behavior of individuals including innovators themselves and the people around them (“people fatigue”), organizational-level flaws such as flaws in vision and decision making (“organizational fatigue”), and external factors such as challenges in IP law, burdensome regulations, tax policies, and trade policies. It is easy to point fingers at management and criticize their lack of courage or willingness to invest, but we must recognize that the forest products industry have faced unusually painful burdens due to external factors which have only strengthened systematic incentives to cut back on innovation and focus on cost-cutting.
There is a need for policy makers to consider the “voice of the innovator” and the unintended harmful impact that some laws and policies can have on long-term innovation. Policies are needed that put manufacturing industry on a more equal footing relative to global competitors who are generally free of the numerous burdens North American industry faces. Policies are needed that reduce the many disincentives corporations may face to be innovative and more visionary here on North American soil.
Meanwhile, there are other things that North American industry can do. Innovation, whether in business models, products, or processes, must be viewed not as an expense to avoid, but as a necessity to survive. The key may not be to conduct detailed research related to the commodities now being produced, but to boldly explore adjacencies and new product spaces as MeadWestvaco did. We see some of this in the biofuels area, such as creative approaches to integrated biorefineries using technologies suited for local biomass and other local resources and markets. We see this in many of the packaging innovations created by innovators in paper-related companies. We see this in the example of companies like Kimberly-Clark that transformed themselves from commodity makers to producers of world-class high-value consumer products rich with innovation and intellectual property.
The most exciting innovations of the future will come at the intersection of disciplines. Building the right relationships and networks across companies, innovators, and institutions will be needed to be aware of the possibilities and to seize them. The technologies we are using today and the know-how we have developed in the forest products industries may be the foundation for rich innovations in nanotechnology, health care, electronics, and various emerging fields, if only we have the courage to explore wisely, with talented minds empowered and motivated to find the paths forward, unhindered by the chains of innovation fatigue.
This post is related to a longer article written for Tappi360 magazine, Dec. 2009.
Death panels have been a hot topic for speculation from some folks worried about health care reform, but in the world of innovation, genuine death panels have long been in place in corporations. Innovation death panels, disguised as intellectual property review committees or IP review boards, have been sending great inventions and great business concepts to an early death for decades. Further, the ways these panels operate can kill innovation at a broader level by discouraging inventors, keeping them out of the loop, and ensuring that whatever is left of their drive is unlikely to bear fruit.
Rationing has to be a reality when it comes to IP because only a small fraction of potentially valuable concepts justify the expense of filing a patent. But failure to pursue a patent need not be an innovation killing event. It can, in fact, be a valuable opportunity. When operated properly, the IP review board can provide a tremendous opportunity to educate, motivate, guide, and inspire corporate inventors, even when the current invention they have brought forward is not right for patenting.
One key is treating the inventors with respect and giving them a chance to be heard, as well as a chance to hear and learn from the review board. Many inventions are not properly understood before a decision is made, and inventors facing that can become cynical. Many inventors in corporations also don’t fully grasp how decisions are made and what the review board is looking for. Use the review process as a way to help the inventor understand the process and the criteria for decision making. ideally, you have a written strategy statement that provides guidelines and specifies where innovation is needed, helping the inventors know what to invent. You can also use the review board experience to recognize the contributions of inventors, treat them with respect, and help them feel motivated and connected, even if their first few tries don’t go anywhere.
The culture engendered by your IP review board or committee can be a matter of life or death for innovation in your company. Don’t let it become a death panel. Watch the process through the eyes of the inventors–listen to the voice of the innovator–and make sure you have a healthy and wholesome system that strengthens innovation, not decapitates it.
In Conquering Innovation Fatigue, we discuss the importance of understanding innovation from the perspective of innovators, and make recommendations for managing and motivating prospective innovators in the corporation, including suggestions for running IP review boards and guidelines on building trust, aligning innovation efforts with corporate needs, and creating cultures of innovation. Sections on corporate innovation are written for both employees seeking to develop innovations and for leaders seeking to encourage it. You must understand and conquer or work around the many innovation fatigue factors that impede innovation in so many corporations.
Global Entrepreneurship Week starts today. This event was started by the Kauffman Foundation, leading champions of entrepreneurship and education, and Make Your Mark, a British group reaching out to young people to inspire innovation. The goal of this global initiative to inspire young people to embrace innovation, imagination and creativity. They want millions to join a growing movement of entrepreneurial people, to generate new ideas and to seek better ways of doing things. Events are taking place around the world this week.
During my recent visits to Singapore and Mexico, I’ve been inspired by the culture of innovation that I’ve encountered. Singapore excels in advanced technology and a powerful approaches to advancing and funding R&D that will create leadership in targeted areas such as biotech and data mining. Mexico has an amazing university system with some wonderful centers for R&D, but what impressed me most is the culture of innovation at the personal level, where individuals are ready to go the extra mile to create success and find better ways of doing things. If this mindset can be fortified and amplified with governmental support and vision, Mexico could become a real leader in global innovation. Innovation can come from anywhere across the globe, but each nation has its own limitations and challenges in terms of regulations, taxation, educational support, infrastructure, capital, markets, and talent. Each nation should have a high-level commission exploring the challenges of innovation at the personal level (one of the key issues we explore in Conquering Innovation Fatigue) to ensure that the voice of the innovator is heard and unintended consequences of government policy are not choking innovation success.