Our Keynote Speaker Professor Eugene A. Fitzgerald featured article in The Telegraph:
As consumers we are told that we live in a world of innovation. New technology is released everyday, the next generation iPhone is always just around the corner and each new device that enters the market is packed with the latest ground-breaking innovative technology.
Today ‘innovation’ is the buzzword that has us all, consumers and businesses alike, reaching for our wallets. Today’s products will be archaic by Christmas, we accept this as an inevitable outcome of a non-stop innovation process. But how true is this and, for that matter, what does innovation truly mean?
As the growing importance of advancements and their connections to economic growth become more visible, the term ‘innovation’ is tending towards hyperbole, and at best it is a nebulous concept. A marketers and PR’s default adjective, almost anything vaguely new to market is classed as innovative.
Investors, Governments, and leading-technology companies value an idea against its potential in the marketplace. In truth, serious folks involved in innovation (a group I humbly place myself within) are not only interested in an idea’s value in the marketplace; we’re interested in an idea that changes the world. We seek real world fundamental innovation: truly new ideas which transform supply chains, alter company relationships, create whole new product or service categories, and stimulate economic growth for decades.
Changing the world is a lofty goal. But what would be your best example of a fundamental, ground-breaking innovation? As a semiconductor specialist, my “go to” definition would be the humble transistor.
The transistor was the innovation that made ‘modern’ technology smaller, radios the size of toasters became pocket-sized and led to computers becoming so small and powerful they could fit in your palm of your hand. The transistor was the invention that revolutionised the world and set the pace of every innovation that followed.
If you’ve not heard of Moore’s law, it’s an innovation paradigm, which in essence states that the density of transistors in a circuit doubles every two years. It’s the reason we know that a faster, lower power consumption tablet, iPhone, laptop will be on the market next year. It has created economic growth world-wide for five decades.
If you think the next generation of technology is the result of very smart scientists, working in very secret labs to make their new ideas a reality, you’re almost right. Thirty years ago I was one of those scientists working in a lab, having great ideas and doing my utmost to develop them. However, when you work in a linear environment, where your work cannot leave the confines of the lab, you’re restricted by design and knowledge of changing market applications and how others are implementing similar or competitive ideas. No single company can hire all of the world’s innovators. Adding the fact that fundamental innovations often take 10-15 years to reach the market just makes it more of an expensive and inherently risky investment, as there’s no guarantee the work will pay off.
That’s why you routinely hear of multinational companies buying smaller developers just to get hold of the innovations. Buying proven innovations just makes better business sense than funding the developments of many potential dead ends. The generation of the ideas pursued by the smaller developers is a process typically disconnected from a multinational company, and expecting the key fundamental innovations for future growth to appear at the right moment and at a reasonable price is improbable.
However, open innovation is the alternative that allows big businesses to work with each other, start-up companies, and academia to create truly fundamental innovations to the challenges they face. Open innovation ecosystems allow these parties to pool their strengths, budgets and practices together to invent new solutions to the challenge of creating ground-breaking, inspirational technology.
Some forward-thinking businesses, including those in the UK, are seeking to engage with new start-ups, academia, and each other. This June I will travel to Wales to deliver the keynote address at CoInnovate, a Welsh Government-backed open innovation conference which will bring organisations such as IQE (whose products are almost certainly in your own Smartphone), General Dynamics UK, GE Healthcare, Airbus Group, the KTN and the ESTnet together with start-ups, universities. So if you’re looking for leading-edge discussions on innovation, stop in Wales this summer. Real economic growth depends on real innovation.
Professor Eugene A. Fitzgerald is the Merton C. Flemings – Singapore MIT Alliance Professor of Materials Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His early career at AT&T Bell Labs included the invention of high mobility strained silicon, an innovation which has made all microprocessor chips and other advanced integrated circuits possible.