Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on CIO Network, a blog belonging to Forbes. It was written by Lemelson historian Eric Hintz.
Everyone knows the legend of the Silicon Valley inventor, creating amazing things while tinkering in the garage. But not everyone is a believer.
At a recent conference in Washington, Eric D. Isaacs, the director of the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, gave a talk on “How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” In his talk, and in an opinion piece published online at Slate, Isaacs argued that “we can’t allow romantic myths about creative loners to overshadow the reality that America’s knowledge enterprise depends on the work of robust teams of highly trained experts, enabled by a world-class scientific infrastructure and supported consistently by public funds.” In other words, we shouldn’t bet on lone inventors like Thomas Edison, Mark Zuckerberg, and Iron Man’s Tony Stark; instead, we should support teams of highly-trained Ph.D.s (like Isaacs) working at big corporate and government R&D labs (like Argonne, the lab he directs).
Drawing on historical examples, Isaacs correctly points out the dozens of technicians Thomas Edison employed at his famed Menlo Park workshop and how nominally independent inventors William Hewlett and David Packard actually relied heavily on institutional support from R&D labs at Stanford University and Litton Industries to launch their startup from a garage in Palo Alto. But he is in danger of replacing one pernicious myth with another—i.e. the fantasy of a corporate or government R&D lab as a self-contained source of scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Implicit in Isaacs’s argument is a linear model of innovation, in which pure scientific research (R) leads directly to the development (D) of marketable new technologies, all occurring within the confines of the lab’s ivory tower. Sometimes this self-contained, linear model works out, but often it doesn’t. For example, in the 1930s, researchers at DuPont’s famed Experimental Station were given carte blanche to study the chemistry of polymers, and those pure scientific investigations eventually resulted in new synthetic materials like neoprene and nylon. While DuPont’s R&D staff developed nylon from start to finish, the idea for neoprene actually originated with a lone inventor—Father Julius Nieuwland, an ordained Catholic priest and chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame. After acquiring the patent rights from the university, DuPont’s scientists worked in collaboration with Nieuwland to turn his prototypes into a saleable product. So while it’s true that sophisticated R&D labs have given us transistors, lasers and futuristic materials, they do not have a monopoly on innovation. In fact, good ideas and expertise often flow across the permeable walls of the ivory tower—from lone inventors into a firm’s R&D labs.
This was true in the 1930s, and it is still true today. Accordingly, many R&D stalwarts have begun re-organizing themselves to mitigate insularism and take advantage of lone inventors and other external sources of innovation. For example, about a decade ago, Procter & Gamble found itself struggling with low R&D productivity—only 35% of the new products developed through its in-house labs were meeting financial objectives. Meanwhile, P&G realized that many of its best products emerged when designers made unexpected connections across its business units or when it sourced new ideas from outside the company. In response, P&G restructured its approach to innovation and set a strategic goal of acquiring 50% of its product ideas from outside the firm. In other words, half of all new products would originate from within P&G’s own labs, while the other half would come through them as the firm improved, scaled, and marketed nearly turnkey inventions acquired from lone inventors and small startups. The strategy, called “Connect + Develop,” has launched several successful products (like Olay Regenerist skin care creams and the Swiffer Duster) while helping P&G double its innovation success rate, even as it streamlined its R&D spending from 4.8% to 3.4% of sales.
Similarly, government agencies and their laboratories have embraced new strategies to cultivate lone inventors and other external sources of innovation. For example, in 2003, NASA inaugurated its “Centennial Challenges,” a series of competitions designed to stimulate space-related innovations by offering cash prizes to individual inventors and small startups. From 2007 to 2009, lone inventor Peter Homer won two separate challenges and $450,000 for developing a next-generation spacesuit glove, assembled in his dining room with a sewing machine. In 2010, Congress re-authorized the America Competes Act, which gave all government agencies broad authority to enact these kinds of crowd-sourcing initiatives, and established a prize clearing house website at www.challenge.gov. Notably, the Department of Energy, which oversees Isaacs and the Argonne National Laboratory, has sponsored eight challenges on the site with prizes ranging from $5,000 to $15,000,000.
In his Slate piece, Isaacs asks and answers his own question:
"Where are the best scientific ideas created and developed?
- a) A garage
- b) A basement workshop
- c) A dorm room
- d) A kitchen
- e) A full-scale laboratory equipped with the latest technology and staffed with highly trained professional researches.
It might not be romantic, but the answer is e)."
Instead, I propose a new answer to Isaac's quiz: f) All of the above. In framing his argument, Isaacs oversimplifies things by presenting the strategic options as a binary, "either/or" choice between lone inventors and sophisticated R&D labs. But we should not embrace one source of innovations at the expense of another. Instead, history and recent practice suggest that our best prospects for innovation will come when we leverage the strengths of both lone inventors and R&D labs, working together.
Let us know what you think—where are the best ideas created?