US Innovation Talk Outline

Outline for Talk at US Innovation Panel

Washington, DC 12/1/08

Today I want to talk about enabling “national scale” innovation, or how to create innovation with thousands, or even millions of people, spanning public and private investment.

Why national scale innovation?

Simple. Many of our problems are national (and global) in scale and are so complicated that, as much as we’d like to believe it, a researcher in some lab somewhere is not going to invent or discover the magic silver bullet that makes our problems go away.

Sustainable, reliable and cost-effective energy tops my personal list of innovation targets, but there are others:

  • diseases
  • sustainable manufacturing and consuming
  • homeland security

I would argue that national scale innovation is not possible without an innovation platform of the same scale.

What is an innovation platform: The core infrastructure and specifications that enable a wide array of innovation.

For example, the Internet is probably our greatest innovation platform.

  • It’s really just a set of specifications and the core network connections that are run by service providers.
  • Spawned an unthinkable amount of innovation, who would have understood all of the ways it is being used?
  • Touches pretty much every part of our lives and national economy.

Another example is the Human Genome Project. Started in 1990, it set out to the map the genomes of humans and other interesting organisms.

  • The project itself has been a wealth of innovation

    • gene sequencing systems
    • data storage and processing
  • The project has produced assets including massive public databases of genomic information, such as GenBank, and a wide range of open tools to operate on this data.

  • Researchers throughout the world rely on these assets, and more importantly, regularly contribute back to them.

Finally, an example that’s less far along, is NEON, or the National Ecological Observatory Network

  • Disclosure: I’m on the board
  • NEON is building out a continental scale observation system for environmental data, and setting the standards for how data is collected, tagged, etc.
  • Like the Human Genome Project, the platform itself is a hotbed of innovation, involving researchers and engineers across the country.
  • But what excites me are the platform aspects, which have the potential to unleash a wave of innovation in measurement, data analysis and prediction

Lets turn our attention now to what makes these work.

  1. Ability to build on the platform. 

    * Any of us could go make a new service for the Internet or write a new algorithm against the data in GenBank. How cool is that?

    * This is why I didn't include the Manhattan Project or the Space Race - although they were massively innovative, they aren't platforms for further innovation. Closed systems.

  2. (Mostly) Free of intellectual property constraints

    * When we use the Internet we don't have to pay a licensing fee to anyone, go sign a contract or an NDA

    * Software to attach is available from multiple sources, most of them totally free

    * Between 1 and 2 there's almost no barriers to entry - this is incredibly powerful

  3. Interesting mix of public and private

    * Not purely public projects
    * Internet pipes are owned by network service providers
    * Governments and businesses all innovate on the Internet

  4. National (and international) consistency

    * Rules are the same where ever you go
    * GenBank isn't managed separately in CA v. PA.
    * Or a better example: there's no state firewall of Michigan, such as the Chinese have done
    * Why do I bring this up? Because there are areas where it is a serious issue.
    * Stepping back, we have an interesting legal system 

      * In many areas states take the lead in new areas of legislation
      * Sometimes when areas get "mature", they are rolled into national legislation which represents the best of the ideas from the states, but with the "ease of use" that comes from national consistency 

      * When this works well it can be a powerful system

    * But it can also backfire. For example, chemical content in electronic products

      * currently done at state level 
      * EU has RoHS directive, which is EU wide 
      * patchwork of laws which often require reporting, disposal
      * I defy anyone to startup a small electronics company that wants to sell nationally 
      * We're at that point where we need national standards

Lets return to one of our motivating challenges: achieving a secure, clean, cost-effective energy system.

  • Truly a national scale problem

  • Need to deal with multiple issues

    • How to create clean energy
    • Distribution
    • Efficiency/energy management
    • Huge variety of use cases
  • No simple answer, no silver bullet. Seriously, we don’t know how to do this.

  • Need: national innovation platform that lets public and private groups work independently on various parts of the problem

  • But, we aren’t close today:

  • Our electricity system is totally governed at a state level

  • Legislative successes such as CA’s efficiency push are not replicated

  • Interfaces aren’t controlled or open

  • how much GHG are you emitting? Common question, hard to get an answer to

  • Lots of vested interests in control v. open innovation

  • What I’d like to see happen

    • We approach our energy problem with an innovation platform mindset
    • Establish a strong national leadership, including people who have been involved in other innovation platforms


  • National scale challenges are best addressed by national innovation platforms that enable widespread public and private innovation. Let 1,000 flowers bloom.
  • We’ve had some amazing examples - we should be trying to learn from them.
  • Our energy challenge is a great target for a new national innovation platform, but it we don’t have a great platform for innovation today - lets build an innovation platform initiative around it!