But this system leaves a category of innovation stranded: new ideas based on new science. Self-fertilizing plants. Bacteria that can synthesize biofuels. Safe nuclear energy technology. Affordable desalination at scale. It takes time for new-science technologies to make the journey from lab to market, often including time to invent new manufacturing processes. It may take 10 years, which is longer than most venture capitalists can wait. The result? As a nation, we leave a lot of innovation ketchup in the bottle.
This is a relatively new situation. From the 1960s through the early 1990s, society’s investments in education and research produced smart people and brilliant ideas, and then big companies with big internal R&D operations would hire those people, develop those ideas and deliver them to the marketplace. When I joined MIT’s electrical engineering faculty in 1980, that model was working extremely well, translating discoveries from university labs across the country into innovations such as silicon-on-insulator technology (IBM) and strained silicon (Intel) — two advances indispensable to delivering on the promise of Moore’s Law , which since the ’60s has enabled the rapid advance of computing power.
In the past two decades, and especially the past five years, the United States has undergone a profound shift in how it develops, adopts and capitalizes on innovation. Today, our highly optimized, venture-capital-driven innovation system is simply not structured to support complex, slower-growing concepts that could end up being hugely significant — the kind that might lead to disruptive solutions to existential challenges in sustainable energy, water and food security, and health.
From a call for the U.S. to come up with more ways to incubate and invest in slower forms of innovation, the types based on new science, which typically have longer gestation periods from conception to payoff.
A lot of green tech seems to fall into this category, requiring tons of capital and decade long time horizons, something most VC's aren't set up to handle.
Bitcoin feels a bit like something one could lump into this slow innovation category, minus the massive capital requirements of most green tech, though perhaps it's less because of scientific uncertainty and more on cultural and social inertia.