Innovation with a little “i” or a big “I”?

Public emphasis on little “i” innovation….

Innovation means many things to many people.  I hear a great deal about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as being iconic innovators for the late 20th to early 21st century world. These are the names people know.  In the public eye they are the icons of American exceptionalism and innovation.

But are they really?  I’m not trying to take anything away from these innovators.  But I am trying to get people to put these products  and applications in their proper perspective.  Because that’s what they are: products and applications using existing technology. They aren’t groundbreaking and game changing in the same respect as the creation of the internet of our generation or the mainframe computers  of 50 years ago.   These products were built on the foundation of those discoveries.

Little “i” innovation exploits existing technology and pushes its limits – producing sexy end-user products or applications.  These would include products like iPads and applications such as Facebook or Twitter.

But what of big “I” innovation? 

Ironically, the big “I” innovators  of our age are not household names.  Has anyone heard of Tim Berners-Lee?  He was largely responsible for developing the internet.  To find a recognizable big “I” innovator we have to go a bit further back in time.  The likes of Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur and Albert Einstein go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today’s Big “I” innovators are unsung heros slogging away in a lab somewhere.  They aren’t sexy, they aren’t wealthy, they aren’t even  publicly recognizable figures.  For the most part, they are academics.  But they are the true innovators behind the little “i” magic that exploits their discoveries.

Game changing Innovation is a slog not a sprint:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  True innovation. Innovation that changes the world, does not sprout in a vacuum from someone’s garage.  Years of discovery and scientific labor – much of it publicly funded, provided the foundation for these seemingly miraculous innovations.

Enthralled with the innovation sprint, but unwilling to support the slog? 

Today we have a real issue with big “I” innovation. No one seems willing to invest in it.  Much of the big “I” innovation comes from the public sector. It comes from academic research that must be publicly funded because no one with VC is going to fund projects that have a 20+ year timeline.

The trouble is that science is dying by a thousand cuts.  We are all enthralled with the final sprint at the end. The sprint that gives us wonder drugs for cancer, new treatments for heart disease, new gadgets that put our lives in our hip pockets.  But all of that was seeded by BASIC research, some of which began 50 years ago when Sputnik roused America’s thirst for real R&D.  We’ve eaten through much of that seed corn…but no one seems interested in sowing.  All we seem to want to do is reap.

But if we stop sowing, how can we continue to  reap?

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