The Prerequisites for Innovation

The RPI president thinks four elements need to be in place to foster scientific innovation: strategic focus, transformative ideas, translational pathways, and capital.
  • Transcript


Question: What conditions are necessary for scientific innovation to occur?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, you know, I often speak about an innovation ecosystem and I say that there are four key things that such an ecosystem has to possess:

The first is strategic focus and that strategic focus can be a national strategic focus, which is one I like to talk about a lot.  It can be within the context of a given enterprise.  The strategic focus—thinking about, you know, what the big issues are; what the big challenges are; where the big trends are; where is the world going?; what are the great things we need to think about—is always important because it helps to sort of size the problem as it were, or spur the dream.  But then we get nowhere if we don’t have discovery, if we don’t have transformative ideas and that is where basic research and freeing people to think about things in a very creative way leads to, you know, "aha" moments that we don’t anticipate.  That’s what makes them aha moments.  So we have to have and appreciate the power of transformative ideas and set the conditions for that to happen.  But ideas are not enough.  Everybody has an idea.  The real issue is if one has something that is really important, it is potentially transformative, how does one get it into the marketplace?  How does one get it into practice? And that is difficult. It requires translational pathways that, ironically in some of the newer arenas, are not so easy. It’s not just as simple as pure venture capital. And a lot of the venture capital and early investors want to have more proof of concept and then proof of scale and so there is a kind of a patient capital that needs to exist that perhaps in the right circumstances, if it really involves some breakthrough technology that may be broadly transformative as opposed to the province of one enterprise, maybe the government has to support some of that.  And then the final key element is capital; but when people think of capital, they tend to think of financial capital and it is one key element of capital, financial capital, patient capital.  But then there’s also what I refer to as infrastructural capital and then, of course, there’s human capital.

Infrastructural capital relates to the fact that if one is in some new area, like nanotechnology again, some areas of biotechnology really break through arenas.  They may need to be shared infrastructure for test beds for scale up demonstrations for prototyping.  It may need computational capabilities for modeling and simulation that a start up firm cannot afford and so they have to be mechanisms to provide that kind of capital, that kind of infrastructure for those enterprises.  And then human capital, we’ve already been discussing in discussing the quiet crisis, because if we don’t have the people, there are no transformative ideas.  If we don’t have the people, there’s no one to either create or move along translational pathways and if we don’t have the people, then the other capital doesn’t matter, because there won’t be anything to invest it in anyway.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman