How not to fund innovation

Andrew Orlowski writes:

Twenty years ago, Andrew Fentem pioneered a tactile, low cost “multitouch” user interface for small computers that revolutionised how they could be used. The British state’s leading innovation body vowed to support him.
In 2003 Fentem applied to Nesta for help. Today, the agency styles itself as the “Innovation Foundation”, but it had begun life in 1998 as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.
Nesta took an unusually broad interpretation of its mission. One beneficiary was a Brazilian-born clown who wished to “celebrate the lives and lessons of female clowns around the world” – while a Huddersfield teacher who styles himself as “an applied magician” received £74,200 and a “Nesta Fellowship” to explore the use of magic in teaching

The write up seems to imply that the proposed royalties flowing to the Britisih innovator were lost because the technology was never “commercialised”. Yet, Apple somehow pushed it out on their monstrosity, it calls an “iphone”-but it was only because it had acquired a “startup” because Apple has never moved the innovation needle. If you start believing the marketing dictum that Apple products “just work” – you surely have had an overdose of Apple kool-aid.

Nevertheless, it is the failing of the bureacracy and the “civil servants” who get into the nitty gritty of the “ideas innovation”. Startups are NOT the bell-weather of any economy. It’s valuation is only hot air and not even worth the paper where it’s IPO prospectus is published. Have you ever wondered why VC’s don’t fund the infrastructure projects? What do they really build?

Innovation, if it comes out universities and a stake in equities, makes sense. Not everything will make the cut. It is tricky, controversial and difficult to foresee how technology will impact the socio-cultural fabric. I am not speaking about the hype around autonomous cars- why do we even need them? I ride a lowly cycle and it does my work just fine.

The “innovation industry” has become a sprawling talking shop, one that spans academia, the private consultancy sector, and the civil service. All share a mutual interest in promoting the idea of the state as a benevolent and wise shepherd of innovation. Fentem’s experience confounds this belief.

The STEM part of innovation was explicitly demoted: “Rather than focusing on purely technological problems,” Mazzucato advised, “we can focus innovation efforts to solve societal challenges that involve technological change, institutional and behavioural change and regulatory change”.

Emphasis mine

The STEM needs to focus on tangible issues- scaling up research that has spin off benefits. For example, devising ways to create better concrete, ideas and innovation for green energy, like solar, addressing the new ideas around battery technology and storing energy, ideas around making biotechnology more accessible for sequencing and efforts to reduce costs. If they hype cycle precedes anything related to “bench-bedside” medicine and using “AI to solve foundational challenges confronting the globe”, then I can smell the BS from miles away. Technology at scale should have direct benefits. Hyperloop is useless. Metro rails and transportation solutions like Skywalks, with reduced cost of implementation and running, are more valuable in the transportation industry. Cycling with promotion of behavioural changes is more important for preventive medicine than announcing the next breakthrough in some screwed up “mab” promising to “improve DFS”.

The “global challenges” are improving access to preventive healthcare- not opening up more hospitals. Capacity augmentation can be done in a measured approach using the returns on investment and having the cohort healthy. It would pay for itself. There’s nothing earth shattering in it, isn’t it?

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