Follow the Money
Jason Pontin’s editorial “The Crisis in Tech Finance” (March 2005) brings out an important point about the so-called transfer gap between lab R&D and commercial financing. Your suggestion on using demand pull – with government creating demand for technologies before the market does so – is very useful. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to persuade those on the demand side to make such commitments without knowing that the technology offers a good solution to the problem at hand – and if it does, private financiers would probably be more than willing to back the technology anyway. The solution here could well be on the supply side: how far can the researchers push the technology with incremental innovation to make it visibly useful to the financiers?
New York, NY
Your editorial reads as if the baseline for “normal” investment in emerging technologies was set four years ago – with everything dropping from that point. Just as firms like Moody’s look across an entire credit cycle before rendering an opinion, it would be helpful to put the funding trends you observed over the past three or four years into a broader context. Otherwise, the data is measured against a high-water mark set by the proverbial 100-year flood. It has nowhere to go but down.
Pontin asks whether the “purchase commitments” with which the U.S. government has supported defense-related technology might work for other technologies as well. The answer is yes: the only things that stand in the way are ignorance and the lack of a national policy that encompasses an economic vision beyond sustaining a consumer-oriented marketplace. Starting around 1960, I spent 40 years in R&D at various federal agencies, including NASA and the Department of Defense. Ever since the early 1980s, it has been impossible to get a government agency to step up to the responsibility of reconciling the supply-demand curve. Even when it is recognized that the cost of introducing a product into the market is prohibitively expensive for private industry, the government has failed to respond. Meanwhile, private financiers show no desire to look beyond the next three to five years – they are eating the seed corn.
William D. Montjoye
San Antonio, TX
As an entrepreneur, it is my experience that venture capitalists are looking for a sure thing. This raises two questions. Why would someone with a “sure thing” want funding? And because low-risk investments translate into low returns, how were these venture capitalists going to deliver the high returns that they had promised their clients?
Mcube Investment Technologies
Hail Russian Engineering
Ed Tenner’s column about the AK-47 and Russian engineering (“Kalashnikov’s Gun,” March 2005) jolted my memory of combat in World War II. During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, we had an assortment of submachine guns, including the homemade Blyskawica (Lightning), the German Schmeisser, the British Sten gun, and the Russian Pepesza. The German and British weapons had a very fine finish, while the Russian Pepesza had rough, unfinished external welding. When subjected to dirt and mud during combat, though, the Sten guns and Schmeissers jammed. The Pepesza withstood rough handling without failure.
Your article about the AK-47 reflects upon the Russian approach to technology – or rather the durability of it – in war. It is interesting to note that during World War II, the Russian engineers made sure their weapons and tank and truck fleets were standardized in less than half a dozen models or specs, unlike the Germans, who produced hundreds of unique vehicle, artillery, and weaponry designs, which resulted in a logistics and maintenance nightmare. The Russians produced a number of key items that were better than those of the Germans – superior tanks, sniper rifles, and optical sights, for example.
Saving the World with Nukes
Your summary of efforts to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate (“Engineering Climate,” March 2005) left out what is still the most important “green” energy source: nuclear power. There is no economical and environmentally acceptable way to store wind or solar energy; the widespread applicability of biofuels is far from proven and may require unacceptable commitments of agricultural land; “clean” coal technology that emits no greenhouse gases is somewhere between a wish and a hope. In contrast, nuclear power is a proven means of large-scale electricity generation that eliminates hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Yet its future development is being stymied by political opponents who proclaim their horror at the threat of global warming. Solving the climate change problem without nuclear energy will be like running a marathon with lead weights attached to one’s feet.
David C. Williams