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The Innovator Gap

The world’s most potent technologists are stranded in today’s innovation ecosystem.
June 27, 2017

An innovator I know—let’s call him Tom—had trained for a decade at some of the world’s top research institutions to become an expert in materials science and engineering. He’d developed a new manufacturing technique for semiconductors with the potential to enable next-generation power conversion devices for lighting, EVs, renewable power, and defense applications. After demonstrating promising results and gathering enthusiastic feedback from industry experts, he was ready to take his technology to market. But how?

I met Tom a year and a half ago, when he applied to an entrepreneurial research program I run called Cyclotron Road. Each year, we receive over 100 applications from the U.S. and beyond for our program, which supports scientists as they work to develop a product based on research in fields like materials science, chemistry, and physics—what we call “hard technology.”

Tom’s story is typical. He’d decided to pursue a startup to develop his idea but quickly discovered that the technology was too speculative for private investment. If Tom were a software innovator, he could build a prototype and validate his product in months with little more than a laptop. But to innovate in semiconductor technology, he would need the tools of cutting-edge research—fume hoods, spectrometers, electron microscopes. He would also need time. Turning a semiconductor breakthrough into a market-ready product can take years. Unfortunately, demand by qualified applicants exceeded our capacity, and we had to turn him away.

In February, he sent me an e-mail. After dipping into his personal bank account to get his effort off the ground, he was shifting gears. He’d decided to enter the world of finance and asked if I could introduce him to one of my contacts at a hedge fund. I was saddened, but not surprised.

Today’s research ecosystem isn’t built to support innovators like Tom. Their projects are too applied for academic labs, which focus narrowly on new scientific discoveries. Meanwhile, private industry can’t justify investment in expensive research that doesn’t yet have clear commercial potential. Faced with this chasm, even the best innovators struggle. Many are bound to say “why bother?” Can we blame them?

So how do we keep the Toms of this world in the game? For starters, we need to do a better job catalyzing the creation of science-based startups and supporting cutting-edge research within them. Free from the institutional pressures of academic publication or corporate quarterly earnings, startups can serve as powerful vehicles to bring hard technologies to market. Such firms often spend years performing research to develop a first product. Yet despite driving some of the biggest technology disruptions in recent history, small businesses receive only a small percentage of all government research funding. 

Society will face enormous challenges in the coming century in areas such as energy, water, food, and health. We need to find a better way to support our best scientists and engineers in their research to turn new discoveries into commercially viable products. Solving these big challenges will depend on it.

Ilan Gur is the founding director of Cyclotron Road.

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