Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Patentista on the New Innovator's Dilemma

The Patentista decided we needed a coffee and the usual home/office brew wasn't going to work so a walk to the nearest espresso emporium was in order.  The Patentista likes being around the freelancing denizens of the Laptopistan viewing them as figuring out the next big thing.  Folks with the next big thing usually need someone who knows a bit about intellectual property at some point.  A good thing for the Patentista.  After getting settled in among the throng of connected folks, the Patentista related a recent conversation had with a leading computer scientist and some technology transfer types on the new innovator's dilemma.

The computer scientist was worried.  It seems that many of his most talented students and protégés were not executing on their innovations or their talent.  It seems that several forces are at foot.  First there is the matter of student loans.  The young and naive and their aspirational parents felt it was worth going out on a limb financially to make sure that their kids could go to school.  As the loans were mounting, no one realized that every $4.35 latte paid for with student loan money was going to have to be paid back from future dollars with lots of interest on top.  The parents and the students never sat down and figured out what the monthly payment was going to be when the budding computer scientists graduated and went into the workforce.  These loans cost serious money on top of housing, food, healthcare (even on the parents plans), and living expenses.  When faced with the after graduation choice of joining a starving entrepreneurial venture where there risk and rewards for success were high along with the potential that the whole thing would implode and the payroll checks might stop versus a more stable corporate gig, only those students with financial resources could take a risk on the risky venture.  (The Patentista pointed out that not all start-ups have venture capital money behind them from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.)  So the potential innovators were buried somewhere.  While there was the potential that they would use their skills in corporate America, the odds of a truly disruptive invention coming from that locale was slim.  A least not anytime soon.

Then their is the university spin-out entrepreneurial adventure.  Few of the innovations created by leading graduate level engineering and medical program were making it to the commercialization phase.  The program, designed to have engineers and doctors spend a year in each other's shoes figuring out technical ways to solve pressing medical problems and how to instill medical approaches to engineering had a serious entrepreneurial element.  Identify a compelling project.  Write up the business plans.  Do the research to see if the invention is patentable, figure out all the FDA and other regulatory issues that would impact commercialization, figure out how to make it and support it.  The folks at the university also found this troubling.  But what was up here?

It turned out that the program was expensive.  Even with a scholarship, most of the participants were already in their mid-20s by the time they started and finished the year long adventure.  At the end of the program there was tremendous pressure from parents and the looming student loans to "get a real job."  Because the program didn't have a path that included helping the participants actually get their business up and running or provide funding for salaries post-completion (the participants had graduate stipends while they were in the program) as the program came close to an end, everyone was job hunting.  The Patentista rued the lost potential of those innovations which might just sit in some university repository but never get taken out for a real trial run to see if they were viable.  Again a situation where economic pressures and fear of the marketplace was hindering innovation.  While the university could license the technology, it wasn't the same as having the minds who created the technology finish the job.

The conversation moved on.  Instead of the people working in Laptopistan, what about the folks behind the espresso machine?  The Patentista asked a simple question, "how many of these baristas have more than one job?"  The answer was pretty easy - most of them.  The digital videographer and technologist with great ideas is working on her new technology/videography projects as a stinger for a leading newspaper.  They kind of get her work but are more interested in her superior editing and content skills.  She gets a small fee, the use of their equipment, and the ability to create her own YouTube channel to showcase her work. (They are generous with the shared copyright.) After that almost 30 hour gig, she does another 20 hours foaming milk and making coffee drinks because, well, she needs the insurance.  So after two jobs and 50 hours a week or more of work, there is little time for developing her own work or saving enough money to start her own firm.  Same with the firmware designer-barista who has figured out a new way to stop hackers, or the anime artist with ideas about new ways to use avatars in commercial advertising.

Not everyone can pick up and move to Silicon Valley.  People have to pay their bills and fix their cars, and pay their student loans.  And the universities are not much help.  They aren't setting expectations on the economics of getting a new millennium college degree or the impact of staying in college for six years instead of four.  And these are the kids getting the science and technology degrees.  What about the art majors?

The same is true for technology programs away from major hubs where economic development gurus ask the question, "how can we get these kids to stay here and develop their ideas?"  Same story - even though there is an ample supply of old brick buildings with lots of high speed internet and other resources, the young scientists and technologists have to go where the jobs are.  The Patentista fears that the best minds might be doing identify management in the server room of some big company.

The Patentista and the computer scientist are chagrined.  How can we nurture the next generation of innovators if everyone is making coffee, working two jobs, worried about their student loans and getting healthcare once they turn 27, and getting heat from their parents to get a "real job." (A real concern for patents in these challenging economic times.)  What we need is for the ideas to fly, for these people to do their own thing, to innovate.  After all, a social media search engine optimization wasn't even a job 10 years ago.  (And, the Patentista, always the realist, noted that these are the future clients.)  These people are in their prime - now is the time.

So there it is.  The new innovators dilemma.  How to we free them up so that they can innovate?  It's going to take a lot more coffee to figure that one out.