Last week, Bob Sutton asked me to add my two bits to the dog-pile surrounding the “Steve-Jobs-is-the-modern-Thomas-Edison” analogy. I initially balked. There were plenty of folks who’d already made this connection. Then I balked because Bob’s own brilliant post on Apple took the discussion in a much more productive direction. Over the weekend, however, I bit. Not because of how the analogy fit, but because of how it didn’t.
This morning our 2011 Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy comes to close. 45 university research scientists from across the country, full professors to first year grad students, arrived on Monday morning with their research and the desire to see it become a reality. After an intensive week of work, they're pitching their proposed businesses for the first time and to a jury of potential investors.
What if innovation was not about solving problems? This thought nags me whenever I'm forced to read about the grave responsibility of "innovation" to solve such persistent problems as climate change, healthcare, poverty, and education. Or listening to how innovation might solve all of Acme, Incorporated's problems but especially that gaping hole in Q3 revenues for 2012, their obsolete technology platform, or declining share values.
Most every bit of advice you’ll find for entrepreneurs is about making the leap, but leaping is not for everyone so it’s important to figure out whether it’s for you. Just beware of setting out to test your entrepreneurial DNA.
I’ve never met anyone who was against innovation. Why is that?
My hunch is because we are too lax with our words. Innovation, creativity, invention, and entrepreneurship are one-sided terms—they refer, typically, only to those successful outcomes we read about, enjoy in our daily lives, or look to for solving major problems like healthcare or global warming. Before talking any more about innovation and entrepreneurship, then, let’s make sure we’re talking about the right thing.
I posted earlier about the different ways that valuable ideas may come out of university research labs. But this series of posts is as interested in how ideas, born inside large and established companies, can also emerge to have significant impacts on broader society. This may seem like an unnecessary charity—like helping corporate executives cross the street—but it’s not. Large companies are arguably the most infertile ground in which to grow an idea into a new business.
On the heels of my post on the Valley of Death, Ben Horowitz of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz posted on Ron Conway
and his network (Ron Conway
Explained) and the value of social capital (connections) more than financial capital (cash) to help startups get off the ground.
Conway is one of the Silicon Valley's uber angels, and I have often spoken about the key role he has attributed to his own social networks when evaluating the potential of new startups. In essence, anyone can invest cash in a new venture, so if cash isn't scarce, the distinctive advantage will go to those new ventures with the best networks connecting them to other future employers, lawyers, investors, and customers.
In investing, Conway asks: "can my network make this company successful?"
If we're truly interested in understanding and supporting the emergence of new ventures we must recognize the primacy of connections. As the story Ben related shows, connections are key to finding cash. In theory, cash can help you find connections, but not always with the right people or for the right reasons.
As public agencies step up their funding of small technology-based businesses, they would be wise to make sure cash isn't their only contribution. The DOE, SBA and the variety of SBIR/STTR programs that are ramping up funding of university and laboratory research commercialization should match these cash investments with their clout in convening the broad ranging networks in which they sit.
The challenge is in replicating and scaling what Conway does. Individually, he can manage how everyone behaves in his network (including rewarding good networking behaviors and punishing bad ones). As Ben Horowitz suggests (and I abridge here), Conway is good at this because he has:
• A ridonkulous work ethic—If Ron’s awake, he’s working…
• Pure motives—Ron does what he does, because he likes helping people succeed in business…
• Super human courage—Ron fears no man and he definitely fears no phone call…Ron’s network is always on.
• A way of doing business—This is the unspoken key to Ron’s success…he acts with extreme prejudice when it comes to the proper way to conduct oneself in a relationship.
Try to imagine putting this into a job description. As a formal job the ability to own and manage in this way goes out the window. Instead, there need to be more structural approaches to achieving the same objective. This is the challenge for all of us.