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Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: June 2009

June 19, 2009

Nurturing the National Reef

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

In my April column, I made an impassioned case for catapulting innovation to the top of America’s priority list. “Nothing is more important for the long-term strength of our nation,” I concluded, “than driving greater levels of innovation across all sectors of our economy. This month, I want to elaborate on how we can embrace this urgency and channel our creative energies into solving our biggest social, economic, and global challenges.

I believe we have an enormous amount of innovation taking place all through our nation—in physical and virtual worlds, in well-financed laboratories and converted garages, in corporations and small businesses, universities and charter schools, nonprofits and social ventures, and even government agencies. In addition to those already doing innovative things, I believe there is a deep bench of “wannabes” waiting for inspiration and a little bit of encouragement.

The challenge before us is to inspire all innovators and those who may not even know yet that they are innovators, regardless of whether their ideas and orientation are “for profit,” “public,” “nonprofit” or a hybrid of the three. We need to encourage them to dream big. We must enable them to connect seamlessly to the resources, talent, learning, and encouragement they need. And we as a nation need a national innovation vision to rally their efforts around.

A Reef Made of Silicon
In the early 1990s, a seasoned executive shared a metaphor that has stayed with me ever since. He said that innovation is like a coral reef. Marine biologists don’t understand fully what causes reefs to form, he said, but we do know that human actions can nurture (or harm) the process. The same is true for innovation. Innovation is a natural, chaotic, unpredictable process that is hard, perhaps even impossible, for well-meaning outsiders to foster. If we try to control or micromanage innovation, we risk squeezing out the very life forces that give rise to successful new ideas. Instead we must focus on finding ways to nurture and accelerate the natural processes of innovation once they’ve begun organically.

For almost a half century, Silicon Valley has been the country’s most compelling example of a healthy innovation ecosystem. Yes, first the dot.com implosion and now the Great Recession have dampened the exuberant spirits in the Valley—and the exotic Italian sports cars in the parking lots of Sand Hill Road now seem jarringly out of keeping with the somber reality of our times. But even after the deluge, Silicon Valley is the kind of reef ecosystem we need to support and nurture across our nation.

Silicon Valley’s remarkable ecosystem did not come to be as a result of a grand plan hatched by a civic or political leader. It developed organically, starting as far back as the Great Depression, when Stanford students Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett started tinkering in Packard’s Palo Alto garage.

Over many decades, Silicon Valley developed a unique, creative, informal, hierarchy-leveling culture. It developed an interconnected web of talented engineers, risk-taking entrepreneurs, big-think investors, and service providers (e.g., the law firm Wilson Sonsini and the design firm IDEO) that inherently understood the Valley’s culture. It became the world’s most fertile breeding ground for innovative technology businesses—starting with HP, then Intel, and then other successes like AppleCiscoeBayGoogle, and many more. This ecosystem is now nurturing a disproportionate share of promising tech startups like Tesla and Facebook that have great potential to transform markets.

Academia, government, and the nonprofit community have also played a big part in the success of Silicon Valley. Stanford University, the alma mater of many of the Valley’s most prominent leaders, played an enormously catalytic role following World War II and continues to do so in the commercial and social arenas. Today, for example, Stanford engineering students and graduates are at the forefront of efforts to create inexpensive, culturally appropriate technologies for helping people in the developing world meet their basic needs.

The federal government, which rarely gets credit for its catalytic role in any field, provided critical infusions of innovation capital through the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and NASA. The Valley’s successful entrepreneurs—such as Hewlett, Packard, Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page—often start charitable foundations and other ventures to support innovators (nonprofit and for-profit alike) working to address the world’s hardest social and environmental challenges. Today, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area as a whole are every bit as much of an epicenter of social innovation as they are of commercial innovation.

It is critically important to point out that there has never been a defined, structured way to connect the dots in the Valley. Instead, it has been this organic ecosystem—with its interrelated professional and personal networks—that has allowed the “dots” to connect themselves. A good example of this phenomenon is the remarkable TED conference, which brings together the brightest minds in a wide range of fields to advance its mission of “spreading ideas.”

I remember working with firms in the Valley in the late 70s and through the 80s. I could see the Valley ecosystem at work all the time, everywhere—technology conversations occurring over dinner, ideas being sketched on napkins in coffee shops, new models being vetted in classrooms, innovation popping up in skunk works, startups working in garages. Even back then, it was this almost seamless interconnection of knowledge, ideas, and people that made the Valley different, and more radically innovative. And it just kept feeding itself as it grew. In Silicon Valley, the alchemical cliché 2+2=6 was and is often real.

Spreading the Success
Of course, Silicon Valley is not the only ecosystem of commercial and social innovation in America. Other highly innovative centers have emerged, such as Boston/Cambridge, the Potomac region, Raleigh/Durham, Seattle/Redmond, and San Diego. However, most regions, and the nation as a whole, default to linear thinking with formal structures to define and control innovation. What they need instead is to turn the forces of innovation loose—to create the right conditions for that reef ecosystem to grow on its own and take hold. These regions need to emulate Silicon Valley’s seamless flow of knowledge, ideas, and people.

If you look, you will find astonishing examples of innovation even in the most unlikely places. Take Greenville, Mississippi, one of the most economically depressed communities in the United States and now the test site for an innovative environmental venture of global significance. The community is planting thousands of acres of bamboo, the fastest sequester of carbon dioxide on the planet, using a new cloning technique that will dramatically decrease the time it takes to produce mature forests of bamboo.

But innovators like the scientists who toiled for years to launch this bamboo effort are often disconnected, operating in silos, without the financial resources and strategic supports they need to develop their ideas and bring them to fruition. They are not swimming in a teeming, healthy reef ecosystem.

Nurturing the reef is hard but doable. In the 1990s, I was involved in two successful nonprofit efforts in the National Capital Region that nurtured a reef in formation. The first was called Potomac KnowledgeWay. This effort helped bring together strange bedfellows from government, academia, and different economic sectors to harness the new economic forces that could position the region as a true port of commerce in the 21st century. The leaders involved in the KnowledgeWay created and then advanced a shared vision of what was needed for the region to become a global center in advanced telecommunications, life sciences, and Internet-related industries.

The second was called Netpreneur. The program, based on my own difficult experience trying to break down barriers that block great ideas from being brought to market, seeded a vibrant and chaotic community of thousands of entrepreneurs (including some nonprofit entrepreneurs), venture capitalists, and angel investors. Netpreneur helped bring these folks together in person and online so that they could help each other get over the barriers they faced. Netpreneur became the region’s most prominent matchmaker between angels, VCs, and startups. But its value went way beyond facilitating the flow of money. It created a freer flow of knowledge, ideas, and people in the region—which provided encouragement to new entrepreneurs, gave rise to successful companies, and helped emerging businesses grow.

Toward a National Innovation Strategy
Through these and other experiences, I have come to believe that nurturing innovation at the national level will require both kinds of approaches—that is, top down and bottom up.

First, our nation needs an overarching framework—perhaps it could be called a “national innovation strategy”—that would define a shared vision, create a clear direction, and identify priority areas for innovation. This national innovation strategy could be drafted by a Presidential Commission made up of A++ innovators and thinkers from across a host of relevant disciplines (and outside the political process), and then quarterbacked by a high-profile Innovation Czar appointed by the President.

The priorities might naturally start with the three top priorities the President spelled out in his address to the joint session of Congress in January: “harnessing the power of clean, renewable energy,” “addressing the crushing cost of health care,” and “expand[ing] the promise of education in America.” It would also have to embrace other needs, such as the enormous challenge of rebuilding our infrastructure and developing a more robust emergency response and homeland security.

Take something as simple as the rebuilding of our highways, bridges, and rail systems. In spite of the infusion of stimulus dollars, our approach to infrastructure is, for the most part, no different from how we’ve done things for decades. Where are the breakthroughs, the new materials, the imbedded communications, smart transportation systems, and digital censors for safety and maintenance that would give us smarter, better, longer-lasting transportation systems? We ought to apply this same “let’s break the mold” thinking across the board—from how we educate our children to how we deliver higher-quality health care at lower cost.

To put us on this innovative path, this national strategy would have to identify, to the fullest extent possible, the specific inflection points and/or tipping points within each of the priority areas—that is, opportunities where targeted innovation could have a disproportionate impact. This would be an even grander version of what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done in the field of global health with its $100M Grand Challenges initiative.

Additionally, the Presidential Innovation Commission could identify all the ways that the federal government could support innovators as well as remove outdated legislative and regulatory barriers to their success. It could serve as the inspiration, provide the imprimatur, and invest in ways to create fusion and connection within and between the many different islands of innovation across the country and around the world.

Simultaneously, we will need bottom-up approaches to engage tens of millions of Americans and nurture reefs in every part of our country and society. For example, building on the “stock exchange” approach used by innovative companies and outlined in this New York Times article, the Administration could create a Federal Innovation Stock Exchange and open it to any federal employee who wanted to float an out-of-the-box idea for addressing a tough societal challenge or creating new innovations that add to our economic engine.

All of the ideas listed on the “stock exchange” would be available for all to see on the Web—sparking additional ideas from inside and outside the federal government. All federal employees whose innovations were adopted would receive some form of bonus and some form of recognition from the President. And if this works for the federal government, one could imagine a network of innovation stock exchanges in which states, metropolitan regions, large universities, hospitals, and civic-minded corporations put in place similar mechanisms to advance innovation to address key social and economic needs.

With a national strategy combined with efforts to seed the creative chaos from bottom up, the Obama Administration could put America on the right path for the long term. Helping to unleash, channel, and connect the millions of innovative minds across all regions, all disciplines, and all walks of life is the most important form of long-term stimulus the President can provide. It is the key to nurturing our national reef.