Sunday, November 13, 2005

Encouraging innovation, or
how I broke
the Patent Office

Everybody searches for some kind of recognition.

We'd gotten our first patents a couple of years into our new enterprise. I found that I was going to be working around Washington DC and thought I'd stop by the patent office to feel like a big shot for a while. I imagined that there might be a separate door for inventors with patents. A celebrity runway for geeks.

That didn't happen, but I was able to find the US Patent and Trademark museum in Alexandria. Lots of very interesting stuff behind their glass cases. I was still hoping for some recognition, what with the new patents and all, but other than a nod from the security guard, the hushed, quietly lit displays kept everyone's attention.

That's when I walked over and set my notebook on the glass cover of a large diarama style display set up in the middle of the room. Except there wasn't a glass cover. My notebook fell with a crash right into the noisiest place it could.

Finally. Recognition from my peers.

Sunday's New York Times (11/13/05) business section featured a page one story about invention and innovation. The author, Timothy L. O'Brien, does a nice job of making the case for increased spending on research and development at all levels. The piece especially makes the case for Big Commerce/Big Academia research funding problems. However, at the meta level, that crowd can make things sound pretty bleak.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report on the subject says that, without a host of upgrades in science and math education and a package of federal spending on basic research and tax incentives, "For the first time in generations, the nation's children could face poorer prospects than their parents and grandparents did."

Even a top guy from M.I.T., Emeritus Professor Merton C. Flemings, who runs the wonderful Lemelson Foundation's innovation program there, puts his fears right up front, "The future is very bleak, I'm afraid."

And yet, and yet, and yet... Professor Flemings later goes on to describe something we don't talk about much. Places like Singapore which have high national test scores but still do not generate the innovation culture so apparent in the US. Singapore sends its education researchers here to study how creativity, an unmeasurable, is developed.

It is not just increased spending for math and science education, both of which absolutely should be done to increase our inventiveness. It's also recognition and support for creativity and a nurturing environment for innovation and innovators.

In fact the Times' piece quotes an M.I.T.- Lemelson Study issued in 2004: "In addition to openness, tolerance is essential in an inventive, modern society. Creative people, whether artists or inventive engineers, are often nonconformists and rebels. Indeed, invention itself can be percieved as an act of rebellion against the status quo."

The headlines for the NY Times article was, "Not Invented Here. Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge?"

If I was selling this idea, I would have taken those lovely words from the M.I.T.-Lemelson study and headlined the Times piece something like, "People everywhere! Hurry! Rebel against the status quo! Storm the Gates! Over the ramparts, mates! The rebellion lives! Charge!!!"

What's hard about THAT sell?

I love to make that pitch, especially to young people. They get it. But I digress.

The Times' piece follows this hopeful direction nicely with the introduction of the work currently being done by Nathan Myhrvold, an inventor rebel himself from the early Microsoft years, subsequently the head of Microsoft's research arm. Mr. Myhrvold has set up a fund specifically to fund independent inventors, and they seem to be growing a nice enterprise from this platform.

I really like Mr. Myhrvold's focus on support and nurturing for the innovators, while also sharing ownership with jointly developed projects. "We all love the goose that lays the golden eggs but somehow we've forgotten about the goose," Mr. Myhrvold said. "This decade, I'm hoping will be the decade of the invention."

Yes, we want to increase innovation. Yes, it typically takes progressive institutional spending to make changes at the meta level.

Do big science, big spending and big institutions matter? Of course.

But there's always the goose to remember. There's always the revolutionary at the gates that needs to be encouraged.

Tom Peters makes this point brilliantly in his 11/11/05 blog. The Times did a major piece on this subject. Tom, as usual, cuts to the core questions, usually within a phrase. A full sentence, max. This time, Tom serves is up as really great bar bet: "Q: #1 R&D spending in the last 25 years? A: GM"

Big academic science research programs are critical to world progress. Big corporate research budgets are also critical. However, both can be used for good or ill.

Measuring the real inventiveness of cultures needs to also include the willingness of all of us to actively participate in the work.

Affirm innovation everywhere you find it. When you see a screwed up legacy piece of status quo getting in the way, attack it. Search out the innovators working in your communities locally or on line and support them.

We're all responsible for the future. Work on it every way you can.

New York Times article link

Lemelson Foundation program at M.I.T.

Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold's program for supporting individual inventors.

Dr. Myhrvold's bio. Yes an important person in the field, but his Times picture makes him look more important to me as a guy I'd like to drink a couple beers with.

Tom Peters. Always walking a mile ahead.

National Inventors Hall of Fame

Photo for this post is the Catoctin Furnace, just south of Gettysburgh, PA.

Someday I will post a link to my upcoming invention, "Clear cover for diarama at the US Patent Museum"

No comments: