The Prerequisites for Innovation

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

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

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

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

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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

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