RealTime IT News

Confronting the 'Tech Innovation Deficit'

Research at Churchill Club
From left: JLabs CEO Judy Estrid, Microsoft Research's Rick Rashid and IBM Research's Josephine Cheng
Photo Credit: David Needle
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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Is Silicon Valley and the broader tech industry gripped by:

  • A: An innovation deficit.
  • B: Fear of failure.
  • C: Greed and short term thinking.

Each possibility got a thorough airing here at an event titled "The Innovation Economy: R&D and a Crisis" on Microsoft Research's Silicon Valley campus, sponsored by the Churchill Club. Judging by the audience's reaction, it's fair to add a 'D' choice as well: "Meddling MBAs and lawyers."

Josephine Cheng, an IBM (NYSE: IBM) vice president and fellow at its Almaden Research lab, suggested the problems in the U.S. were partly because we have "too many MBAs and lawyers. We need to go back and focus on basic science, technology and education and don't [encourage] so many people" to become MBAs and lawyers."

Cheng's remarks drew the second biggest round of applause of the night. Rick Rashid, Microsoft's vice president of research, drew the biggest applause partly at Cheng's expense. After hearing dour assessments from other panelists on the state of innovation, Cheng noted IBM continues to generate patents at a healthy clip.

"The number of patents is a horrible metric," Rashid broke in. "That just shows how much money you wanted to spend on lawyers," he added to sustained applause. Rashid should know; his employer, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) was just awarded its 10,000th patent last month.

Judy Estrin stood out as the most passionate speaker on the topic, which is one she researched in depth for her recent book Closing The Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy.

Estrin believes the causes of the financial crisis are symptomatic of an issue that cuts across tech and other industries throughout America. "The country overall has become increasingly short-sighted," she said. "We don't think about long term prosperity, but about short term greed and that's led to an innovation deficit."

Her hope is that the sudden, deep impact of the economic downturn will lead to new thinking, innovation and strategies that are built to last. "We don't want another bubble. Even if we have slower growth, we need sustainability," she said.

She said government has a major role to play in funding basic research as well as education. "There's no question we're not educating our kids for the 21st century," she said.

Estrin, a former chief technology officer at Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), is currently CEO of JLabs and a board member of Walt Disney and Federal Express. She said the current credit and liquidity crisis is holding back entrepreneurs who can't get adequate funding for their startups.

"We have no IPOs for small companies and until we solve that problem, we can't depend on entrepreneurs to do what they do so well."

Next page: Do you have what it takes?