If the United States had invested in developing practical applications for basic science in immunology and infectious diseases, the world could have been better prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, says Ilan Gur.
That's just one example of how the U.S. has lost its way when it comes to innovation, he writes in the MIT Technology Review. The CEO of tech fellowship program Activate argues that after World War II, the U.S. "laid the technological foundation for our entire modern economy across telecommunications, space, defense, and health. And then we fell asleep at the wheel."
The U.S. government isn’t supporting the country’s “entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.
Over time, the government has focused on supporting education and scientific research, which leaves finding practical solutions to the private sector. At the same time, the private sector is focusing on developing information technology and apps, he says.
“The private sector has been increasingly pressured to deliver quarterly earnings versus thinking about long-term value creation,” he says, “and really has moved away from funding the kind of speculative early-stage innovation that we need to build a better future.”
Any of the country’s thousands of capable innovators can drop out of school and work on their ideas in a coffee shop, but these entrepreneurs lack opportunities for investment and support, he says.
The need to strengthen innovation in the U.S. goes beyond solving far-off, future challenges, he says. Gur sees opportunity for the country to move past century-old technology and infrastructure Americans rely on for housing, roads and transportation.
“When we look past our screens, our devices, our apps, and we think about all the ways that society needs to thrive in the next century, I feel like we're really falling short,” he says.
On the history of the U.S. as an innovation leader
“The U.S. has historically been a leader in innovation because I'd argue it had three magic ingredients going for it. It's had the world's best universities to create amazing talent and ideas. It had the world's strongest industrial research houses to turn those ideas into products. And then there's just an unmatched, enterprising entrepreneurial spirit in the United States that's really key.”
On how innovation can solve basic issues such as unemployment systems
“I think one of the encouraging trends we're seeing is the philanthropic world is doing a really great job of catching up with the idea that entrepreneurship can help drive social solutions. Philanthropy, I think, is doing that well. I think government needs to catch up there. Our focus at Activate has been on a set of social innovators for which it's very, very hard to support them because the innovations they're doing, things like creating new ways for CO2 to be captured. These are big infrastructure innovations. And so they need that extra support. And the importance of those innovations is really profound.”
On starting a fellowship program that turns scientific discoveries into applied technology and the state of innovation in the U.S.
“Here's the story. We have some of the most amazing enterprising talent in terms of innovation talent in the world. The U.S. graduates 40,000 science and engineering PHDs alone every year. These are folks that we collectively have funded to become cutting edge experts in fields like chemistry and physics and material science. These are folks who have the ability to go create this infrastructure of the future that we all want to see. And what you find is while our innovation system, we're in a renaissance age of innovation where, you know, someone who wants to build an internet app can essentially drop out of school and sit at a coffee shop and started iterating on their ideas.
“These types of innovators, these kind of harder science innovators, they don't have a path to move their ideas forward, largely because the innovation that they're talking about doing requires a different level of investment and support. And at the earliest stages of these things, they're still too speculative to be taken up by venture capitalists and corporations. And yet, in today's system, the government sees them as too applied for kind of the traditional academic research that the government funds. And so, you know, my biggest observation and the biggest pain point that I've seen is we just have this incredible wealth of talent and ideas that could create a better future that are stranded.
“The organization that I run, Activate, we set up to provide a path for cutting edge scientists to be entrepreneurial, moving their ideas into the market to address these big social needs. You know, for the last five years, we've been working, taking top scientists, entrepreneurial scientists who want to commit their life to that pursuit, giving them a couple of years with access to partner research labs to be entrepreneurial and create technologies like better batteries for cars and the electricity grid or geothermal energy or ways to capture CO2. And the work they're doing is sort of stuck where it doesn't fit into the kind of academic research world. But it also doesn't fit into what the normal marketplace is doing right now in terms of supporting innovation. And until we can find a way for both government and industry to step up and say, no, we need to find a way to partner to support this type of innovation at the right scale. Until that happens, I think the best shot we've got is tapping into this entrepreneurial spirit and supporting innovators who really want to drive that future.”
On why it matters if the U.S. isn’t an innovation leader anymore
“Oh, wow, that's a big, important question. The idea that the United States, as a leader in democratic ideals, is not at the forefront of technology innovation that we as people worldwide are relying on is a really critical threat to those ideals. I think the biggest magic ingredient that we have in the U.S. to drive innovation is this entrepreneurial spirit. And what we found is that in supporting research and development, the government hasn't caught up in the times in recognizing that amazing scientific research, technical innovation can be done now by small entrepreneurial shops, not just, you know, kind of big, big institutions. And we need to find a way to support that spirit.”
On what we can learn about innovation from other countries
“I would say, you know, the thing that in the U.S. has really faltered is this industrial, this component of how do you take speculative research and turn it into products in these areas outside of IT? If you look at other parts of the world, there are governments out there that have been much more aggressive in supporting solutions to societal problems, solutions to big opportunities. If you look at Europe in climate change and energy, you know, lots of incentives toward creating a market for clean energy. The enormous solar energy market around the world really started from incentives in Japan and Germany. That said, we want to see this happen. There was no market and they created a market. And it's an enormous global market right now. So you can think about those sorts of countries.
“You can look at a place like China that has been really aggressive at funding, frankly, the combination of both cutting edge research and education at a fundamental level and in really strong investments in industrial research. And that's a powerful, powerful combination. And I would say the one thing that still no other country has in anywhere near the magnitude that we have in the United States is the enterprising entrepreneurial spirit. You know, we've got this magic tool, this magic weapon in our bag. And so I think there's a lot to be excited about and hopeful about and a lot of opportunity.”
This segment aired on July 31, 2020.