Category Archives: Innovation

Jacques Lewiner about Innovation

I had the chance to meet this afternoon Jacques Lewiner, the renowned French professor and entrepreneur, who has contributed a lot in making ESPCI a completely atypical engineering school in the French landscape. This is probably the school that “innovates” the most, especially through its spin-offs.


No need to tell you much about the meeting because all his messages can be found in an excellent interview he gave to the newspaper Le Monde last November entitled “In France, there is a huge potential for innovation.” The article is online (and for a fee – it seems) but there is also a pdf document available, both in French. Allow me then to provide my translation below. His philosophy is simple: encourage and encourage again, with a lot of flexibility; in particular, we must strongly encourage entrepreneurship with Silicon Valley, Boston and Israel as models.

An anecdote before I let you read the interview: he enjoyed reminded me several times that his vision did not make him only friends, as he thought the proximity to the industry and flexibility are essential. But he told me he was the successor of a famous lineage with a similar philosophy: Paul Langevin was a renowned scientist, inventor and author of patents on sonar and… a communist. ESPCI was founded by engineers concerned about the weakness of France and its universities in chemistry after the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870. The Protestant culture of its founders facilitated perhaps closer links between academia and industry. (See History of the Graduate School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris in French again.)

“In France, there is a huge innovation potential”

For the researcher and entrepreneur Jacques Lewiner, we must fight the idea that research does not support the creation of wealth. Jacques Lewiner is Honorary Scientific Director of ESPCI ParisTech engineering school. This former researcher with “a thousand patents” (taking into account the many countries where patents have been filed) is also the head of the Georges Charpak ESPCI endowment intended to help researchers to put their ideas into practice. He is also the Dean of the valorization at Paris Sciences and Letters (PSL), a new entity bringing together several academic institutions. In addition to his research career, he created or co-founded many companies, including Inventel (Internet box manufacturer) Finsecur (fire safety) Cytoo (cell analysis) and Fluigent (fluid management).

What do you mean by innovation? This is what transforms the knowledge acquired – through study, imagination, research … – into a product, a process, a new service. Among this knowledge, those from the research have a very strong leverage. But innovation does not necessarily give a Nobel Prize. And conversely, intellectually beautiful ideas can be of no industrial interest! For example, I was convinced of the value of the piezoelectric plastic materials for which a voltage appears when distorted. I have filed patents and thought that these devices would be used everywhere. It was more than twenty years ago and it is still not the case. Only a few car seats have been able to detect thanks to them the presence of a passenger … In fact, often, the ingredients of an innovation are already around, but it lacks someone to put them together. When we designed the first Internet box with Eric Carreel, creating Inventel, there was no rocket science. We just had the idea of putting in one device a modem, a router, a firewall, a radio interface… It was also very difficult to convince operators of the interest of such a device but, fortunately for us, Free arrived and opened the market.

You did not always meet with success, as shown in the adventure of the first e-book, available from Cytale who filed for bankruptcy in 2002. What lessons did you learn from these failures? By definition, innovation means taking risks. Nothing is taken for granted. In case of failure, we must analyze the reasons and win an experience that others do not. It is enriching. I also remember very well my first failure. I was convinced to have found new properties of “electrets”, the electricity equivalent of what the magnets are in magnetism. I finally realized that they were already known for over a century. However, they could enable the design of new sensors, especially microphones. I tried to convince large corporations by contacting their research center, and not their business units. It was a mistake. These laboratories had obviously no interest in defending an invention that they had not made! I then had the chance to meet a remarkable entrepreneur, Paul Bouyer, with whom I could create my own business. The future was opened to us, but I did in record time all possible errors. I wanted to do everything myself, without understanding the importance of team work. The adventure lasted a year …

Where is France in terms of innovation? It has a huge potential. People are well trained and research is of quality. The basic culture is in place. But there are too many barriers between scientific discovery and the application that will appeal to the market. Our system blocks initiatives. We must simplify French law and do away with some nonsense.

Which ones? Before the 1999 Allegre law, a researcher could not even get into a board! That changed but nonsense persists. Today, it is very difficult for a researcher to become a consultant, the authorization may be received at the end of a very long time, sometimes a year, and, in addition, it has to be out of its filed of competence! Fortunately, some resourceful people manage to get by, but it is an obstacle for most. A ESPCI ParisTech, to help our researchers, we have created an endowment fund. We make strong efforts to answer within two weeks to a researcher who claims an invention. In some institutions, this response may take from six months to eighteen months! Such a delay is likely to delay the scientific publication of the researcher. One could imagine a rule that states that beyond two months no response means agreement.

Are patents necessary? Yes, they are useful in two ways. On the one hand, they avoid if successful innovation is copied and, secondly, they secure investors at a fundraiser. But patents can sometimes be like mirages. CNRS has long received many patent royalties from Pierre Potier’s antitumor drugs Taxotere and Vinorelbine. But when the public domain, these patents do not bring any revenue. [In 2008, they accounted for 90% of CNRS royalties]. To create wealth from research, we must also encourage the creation of innovative companies. At ESPCI ParisTech, we help in patenting but also in the creation of start-ups, by granting them very favorable terms in exchange for 5% of their capital. It is a model of operation similar to that of Stanford University [in California], which portfolio of ownership in start-ups (like Google) represents more income than from patents. Some universities charge a 10% to 25% ownership in start-ups, and further require the repayment of loans. It is far too greedy and discouraging for researchers. A few years ago, the Ecole Centrale estimated that its start-ups had generated a ten-year cumulative revenue of € 96 million. For ESPCI ParisTech, over the same period, it was 1.4 billion. And for the Technion Institute in Israel, it was 13 billion in 2013. Do not tell me you cannot do the same in France!

Maybe is it a question of culture. Can we change it? One should not oppose research and creation of economic activity. But it is true that in France sometimes persists the idea that researchers should not benefit financially from their work. However, it is not shocking that good research also creates economic wealth. We must create a favorable ground leaving the most possible freedom for researchers. We can also improve the training of researchers and engineers. Stanford University and the Technion are also models here. The former, with its Biodesign Center, promotes the mixing of cultures between physicists, chemists, medical doctors, biologists, computer scientists… As part of their curriculum, students are required to file a patent, or even start a business! At PSL, we have created with this in mind a new curriculum, the Institute of Technology and Innovation, in which research and innovation are mixed.

Many economists are pinning their hopes on the digital world to boost growth. What about you? Of course, the digital world will have its place in the future as it will be used in all activities. Sometimes we assimilate the digital technologies and the Internet start-ups. The latter sometimes have phenomenal success, sometimes ephemeral. Many fail. The area that can benefit directly from the research is the industrial sector, creating jobs and activities. Have we reached the peak of development and innovations? Certainly not. On the contrary, a new world is opening for the next generations at the confluence of chemistry, physics, biology, electronics and information technology. All this will continue to result in improved quality of life. Let’s not put artificial obstacles on this path and therefore be optimistic about the results that will follow.

Interview by David Larousserie
Le Monde, November 23, 2014.

Invention is the Mother of Necessity!

I am reading the remarkable Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.


I did not think initially that I would have anything to extract from it related to entrepreneurship and innovation. And I was wrong. I just read a section about human inventions and innovations, which I liked very much. Here it is.

THF STARTING POINT for our discussion is the common view expressed in the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention.” That is, inventions supposedly arise when a society has an unfulfilled need: some technology is widely recognized to be unsatisfactory or limiting. Would-be inventors, motivated by the prospect of money or fame, perceive the need and try to meet it. Some inventor finally comes up with a solution superior to the existing, unsatisfactory technology. Society adopts the solution if it is compatible with the society’s values and other technologies.
Quite a few inventions do conform to this commonsense view of necessity as invention’s mother. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the U.S. government set up the Manhattan Project with the explicit goal of inventing the technology required to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do so. That project succeeded in three years, at a cost of $2 billion (equivalent to over $20 billion today). Other instances are Eli Whitney’s 1794 invention of his cotton gin to replace laborious hand cleaning of cotton grown in the U.S. South, and James Watt’s 1769 invention of his steam engine to solve the problem of pumping water out of British coal mines.
These familiar examples deceive us into assuming that other major inventions were also responses to perceived needs. In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers come to feel that they “needed” it. Still other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.
A good example is the history of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music.
The motor vehicle is another invention whose uses seem obvious today. However, it was not invented in response to any demand. When Nikolaus Otto built his first gas engine, in 1866, horses had been supplying people’s land transportation needs for nearly 6,000 years, supplemented increasingly by steam-powered railroads for several decades. There was no crisis in the availability of horses, no dissatisfaction with railroads.
Because Otto’s engine was weak, heavy, and seven feet tall, it did not recommend itself over horses. Not until 1885 did engines improve to the point that Gottfried Daimler got around to installing one on a bicycle to create the first motorcycle; he waited until 1896 to build the first truck.
In 1905, motor vehicles were still expensive, unreliable toys for the rich. Public contentment with horses and railroads remained high until World War I, when the military concluded that it really did need trucks. Intensive postwar lobbying by truck manufacturers and armies finally convinced the public of its own needs and enabled trucks to begin to supplant horse-drawn wagons in industrialized countries. Even in the largest American cities, the changeover took 50 years.
Inventors often have to persist at their tinkering for a long time in the absence of public demand, because early models perform too poorly to be useful. The first cameras, typewriters, and television sets were as awful as Otto’s seven-foot-tall gas engine. That makes it difficult for an inventor to foresee whether his or her awful prototype might eventually find a use and thus warrant more time and expense to develop it. Each year, the United States issues about 70,000 patents, only a few of which ultimately reach the stage of commercial production. For each great invention that ultimately found a use, there are countless others that did not. Even inventions that meet the need for which they were initially designed may later prove more valuable at meeting unforeseen needs. While James Watt designed his steam engine to pump water from mines, it soon was supplying power to cotton mills, then (with much greater profit) propelling locomotives and boats.

THUS, THE COMMONSENSE view of invention that served as our starting point reverses the usual roles of invention and need. It also overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That “heroic theory of invention,” as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer’s perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, Like Athene springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.
ln reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim “X invented Y.” For instance, we are regularly told, “James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,” supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a teakettle’s spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt’s repair work. Newcomen’s engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny that Watt greatly improved Newcomen’s engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery’s.
Similar histories can be related for all modern inventions that are adequately documented. The hero customarily credited with the invention followed previous inventors who had had similar aims and had already produced designs, working models, or (as in the case of the Newcomen steam engine) commercially successful models. Edison’s famous “invention” of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21, 1879, improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inventors between 1841 and 1878. Similarly, the Wright brothers’ manned powered airplane was preceded by the manned unpowered gliders of Otto Lilienthal and the unmanned powered airplane of Samuel Langley; Samuel Morse’s telegraph was preceded by those of Joseph Henry, William Cooke, and Charles Wheatstone; and Eli Whitney’s gin for cleaning short-staple (inland) cotton extended gins that had been cleaning long-staple (Sea Island) cotton for thousands of years.
All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugurated commercial success. The form of the invention eventually adopted might have been somewhat different without the recognized inventor’s contribution. But the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product. As we shall see, the tragedy of the hero who perfected the stamps used for the Phaistos disk was that he or she devised something that the society of the time could not exploit on a large scale.
[Pages 242-245]

How the Web was Born

How the Web was Born is a book I bought recently while visiting CERN in Geneva. It was written by James Gillies and Robert Cailliau and published in 2000. If you like history, you will appreciate this detailed account of more than forty years of technology developments. I am not yet finished, but there were a couple of things I wanted to mention here.


– Public funding, mostly through (D)ARPA has been critical for the emergence of the Internet.
– Xerox PARC with its freedom to explore in the 70s has also been instrumental even if it did not directly benefit from its innovations. I did not know key people were coming from ARPA (again).
– When in 1987, CERN needed equipment that could guarantee and secure data transfer, it used he a small 3-year old company… Cisco.
– They were similar experiments to ARPANET in the UK and France, but with different dynamics… [In France] “this apparent success is tempered by the fact that CII had been selling its products at a loss, despite billions of francs of state investment, and the resulting company, again called Bull, is but a small player on the world stage. American success stories like DEC and Apple were launched for the equivalent of less than a single day’s funding of the French Plan Calcul and that from private funds. The lesson to be learnt is that state investment alone isn’t the answer. France’s Délégation à l’Informatique included not a single computer scientist, and was motivated by national pride rather than economic viability, noted a 1997 French government report. Partly because of this, ‘the failure of CII was written in its genes’, one former director of Bull was moved to say. The American approach, on the other hand, most strongly expressed through ARPA, had been to support good ideas coming from the ground up rather than trying to impose something from the top down.” [Page 58]

Indeed the TCP/IP protocol won because it worked but not because it was planned… The Internet is an amazing innovation which does not belong to anyone but is the result of collective endeavors. Again, the role of the state is shown as a friendly enabler more than a direct actor. Interesting lessons (or at least useful reminders)…

Something rotten in the Google republic?

I should have added a point of disagreement or discomfort in the analysis made by the authors of How Google Works. On page 125, there is a short section called Disproportionate rewards:

“Once you get your smart creatives on board, you need to pay them. Exceptional people deserve exceptional pay. Here again you can look to the sports for guidance: Outstanding athletes get paid outstanding amounts. […] Yes they are worth it (when they perform up to expectations) because they possess rare skills that are tremendously leverageable. When they do well, they have disproporationate impact. […]

You can attract smart creatives with factors beyond money: the great things they can do, the people they’ll work with, the responsability and the opportunities they’ll be given, the inspiring company culture and values, and yes, maybe even free food and happy dogs sitting desk-side. […] But when those smart creatives become employees and start performing, pay them appropriately. The bigger the impact, the bigger the comp. Pay outrageously good people outrageously well, regardless of their title or tenure. What counts is their impact.”


I am in fact coming back to Capitalism in Silicon Valley following my contribution on France Culture. My French culture naturally favors the collective rather than the individual, while America has a reverse culture. However, the excellent exchange between Xavier Niel and Edgar Morin (l’école de la vie) shows that the borders or at least the analysis are moving. “What can a young French do if he wants to get rich, which is not to be despised? Not much. So he/she leaves. If a young suburban, if excluded from the school system, he/she only has small jobs or illegal dealing. And it is tragic. […] The problem is that the state has no money. No money, no reform. There is no more vision and courage to face corporatism.” And there’s the problem of Republican elite which is out of breath. “The social elevator is not working anymroe. We have the worst grade among the OECD countries in this area. The elites are very little renewed. What hope can have a growing number of young people who will find it difficult to benefit from a system monopolized by a few self-proclaimed castes and other great public servants of the state, which management has also been poor?”

In California, Google also stirs controversy. The exclusivity and exception create exclusion. How to correct it? Picketty and others respond with tax. But Google and others do not pay (enough) taxes … And Eric Schmidt does not addresses the issue of the collective and Google uses the law to optimize taxation. The “exceptional” and “outrageously” can become outrageous…

My discomfort is amplified by the notion of merit. In the field of science, one “grows up on the shoulder of other giants” and many have been forgotten. Albert Einstein. Didn’t he owe anything to Mileva? These exceptional individuals. Don’t they owe nothing to the surrounding environment, which may have helped? I’m much more sensitive to the other argument the authors use: “fight for the Divas” (page 48). I believe that in science, we have not listened enough to the exceptional behaviors such as Perelman and Grothendieck, two mathematicians who have withdrawn from the world.

I do not have answers and just intuitions. Between the elite, the exceptions, the rare individuals, and the collective, society, people, there must be a better balance. Between the negative taxes that the multinational corporations pay and the higher-than-the-annual-income taxes of some wealthy entrepreneurs, there must be a wise mid-point, which should help solve some issues of Silicon Valley on one side and Europe on the other side…

Should entrepreneurs have start-up skills? Two counterintuitive answers

I teach entrepreneurship and I often wonder. What should be taught? I am not sure. In the class How to Start a Startup, both Paul Graham and Peter Thiel did provide feedback on some examples. First Paul Graham. Just click here or go to time 5:26 below or read after the video frame.

“The second counterintuitive point, this might come as a little bit of a disappointment, but what you need to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups. That makes this class different from most other classes you take. You take a French class, at the end of it you’ve learned how to speech French. You do the work, you may not sound exactly like a French person, but pretty close, right? This class can teach you about startups, but that is not what you need to know. What you need to know to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups, what you need is expertise in your own users.

Mark Zuckerberg did not succeed at Facebook because he was an expert in startups, he succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups; I mean Facebook was first incorporated as a Florida LLC. Even you guys know better than that. He succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups because he understood his users very well. Most of you don’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round, right? If you feel bad about that, don’t, because I can tell you Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round either; if he was even paying attention when Ron Conway wrote him the big check, he probably has forgotten about it by now.

In fact, I worry it’s not merely unnecessary for people to learn in detail about the mechanics of starting a startup, but possibly somewhat dangerous because another characteristic mistake of young founders starting startups is to go through the motions of starting a startup. They come up with some plausible sounding idea, they raise funding to get a nice valuation, then the next step is they rent a nice office in SoMa and hire a bunch of their friends, until they gradually realize how completely fucked they are because while imitating all the outward forms of starting a startup, they have neglected the one thing that is actually essential, which is to make something people want.”

Second Peter Thiel about the Lean Startup movement. Again just click here or go to time 44:55 below or read after it.

“What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”

(NB: I assume ESP is Extra-Sensory Perception)

Ten key recommendations to support youth entrepreneurship

I just recieved a very interesting analysis by E&Y and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance (G20 YEA), entitled Avoiding a lost generation: Ten key recommendations to support youth entrepreneurship across the G20. Both their recommendations and what young entrepreneurs look for deserve some attention.


Here are the 10 recommendations:

Access to funding
1- Capital without mentorship is lost capital.
Create funding mechanisms, either government run or government backed, that make mentorship and financial education a condition of funding.
2- Access to alternative funding is critical.
Create strong relationships and provide incentives with venture capitalists (VCs), incubators and business angels to develop or create initiatives that enable alternative sources of capital.
3- Public funding matters.
Sponsor start-up growth with low-cost funding for targeted groups.
4- Entrepreneurs still need banks to keep credit moving.
Create a new class of loan for small businesses and young entrepreneurial firms that offers targeted funding to meet expansion capital needs.

Tax and regulation
5- Targeted tax and business incentives are highly important to supporting young entrepreneurs in scaling their businesses.
5a-: Encourage investment in start-ups by offering tax benefits.
5b-: Enable young, high-growth entrepreneurial firms to scale up through amplified support for market access.

6- Support global mobility for young entrepreneurs.
Encourage top international talent by changing visa rules and offering funding support.
7- Complex and burdensome rules in areas such as tax hold back young entrepreneurs.
Simplify and streamline tax administration to ease administrative burdens on young entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship culture
8- Positive mainstream views about entrepreneurship are needed to attract young people.
Create a positive narrative around entrepreneurship to help engage young people from an early age.
9- Encourage a national, regional and local culture of entrepreneurship.
Encourage and foster hubs, incubators, accelerators and networks to bring relevant talent together.

Developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem
10-For many of the recommendations and actions to have sustainable impact they need to work as part of a regional ecosystem, and within a regional ecosystem framework that fosters and attracts a critical mass of talent, capital and most importantly entrepreneurial leaders.
Create the foundation for a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem to flourish.

And nearly as interesting is the perception from the entrepreneurs. Just notice that the priorities are not emphasized in the same order. We see that tax is not their main problem, an intuition that I always had.


Was Christensen wrong and is Disruptive Innovation a shaky theory?

Clayton Christensen has been one of my heroes. Will I have to kill this father figure? The often excellent New Yorker magazine published recently The Disruption Machine with subtitle What the gospel of innovation gets wrong. Author Jill Lepore knows a lot about the Innovation gurus from Schumpeter to Porter and Christensen and what she has to say is at least very disturbing.

“Disruption is a theory of change
founded on panic, anxiety,
and shaky evidence.”

You have to read the article: Lepore seems to have strong arguments about the weaknesses of Christensen’s. In the Disk Drive industry, she claims, Seagate Technology was not felled by disruption. Same with Bucyrus and Caterpillar for the mechanical-excavator industry or “Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is — U.S. Steel”. Difficult for me to assess the claims. I have to admit I had read more recent books of Christensen which were really disappointing but I thought his first breakthrough remained strong.

Funnier: “The theory of disruption is meant to be predictive. On March 10, 2000, Christensen launched a $3.8-million Disruptive Growth Fund. Less than a year later, the fund was quietly liquidated. In 2007, Christensen told Business Week that “the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,” adding, “History speaks pretty loudly on that.” In its first five years, the iPhone generated a hundred and fifty billion dollars of revenue.”

There has been a debate following Lepore’s claims which I will let you discover:

– Business Week: Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’: here.

– Forbes: What Jill Lepore Gets Wrong About Clayton Christensen and Disruptive Innovation: here.

– Slate: Even the Father of Disruption Thinks “Disruption” Has Become a Cliche: here.

PS: thanks to Martin for pointing that amazing article to me!

Innovation and Society: are the Returns and Benefits Sufficient?

Here is my latest contribution to Entreprise Romande. I return to a subject that is dear to me, Innovation and Society. (If you read French, the original version is certainly better…)


The Enterprise is more than ever at the core of the political debates through its role in the creation of jobs and wealth – both individual and collective. It is indirectly the source of populism and of protectionist temptations. Inside and outside of its walls, innovation is the subject of similar tensions: are the returns and benefits of innovation sufficient for society?

Mariana Mazzucato and the Entrepreneurial State

A recent book tackles the topic of the respective roles of business and government in innovation: Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at the University of Sussex, develops in The Entrepreneurial State [1] – a fascinating and quasi-militant book – the argument that the States have not collected the fruits not only of direct investments in their universities, and even indirectly from the help and support provided to businesses, investments and supports that are at the origin of the major innovations of the last fifty years.

Mazzucato brilliantly illustrates this through the example of the iPhone and the iPad, which integrate components initially financed by the public bodies: from electronics developed for the space and military programs to the touch screen or GPS, or even Siri, the voice recognition tool (which has sources at EPFL), the author shows that Apple has masterfully integrated technologies initiated by public money. Google is also the result of research done at StanfordUniversity. Mazzucato adds that clinical trials for new drugs are mainly made ​​in hospitals funded by public money, from molecules equally discovered in university laboratories.

Mazzucato therefore advocates major reforms both on the governance of the initial support and on taxation. She fights for a new tax system that would compensate the absence or insufficiency of direct returns to universities or from businesses, all the more that it is indeed undeniable that multinational companies easily optimize their taxation. She shows how Apple has taken advantage of international rules to create subsidiaries in Nevada or Ireland to minimize its taxes.

The English researcher is convincingly claiming that Apple has to pay more. But how to pay? Paying a license for the GPS, but to whom? I’m not even sure that the GPS is patented. And if the Internet had been patented, it would probably not have had the same development – I do not ned to go over the limitations of the French Minitel. By seeking more direct financial returns (which are not as insignificant as one might think – Stanford has received more than $300M for its equity shares in Google and over $200M of the first patents in biotechnology), the risk would be very high to discourage creators and stifle innovation. I doubt that the solution lies in more rigorous national rules.

Peter Thiel and the Individual Entrepreneur

Peter Thiel, an libertarian entrepreneur and investor, is so opposed to such views that he encourages youung people motivated in entrepreneurship to abandon their studies by providing them with $ 100,000 grants and he even imagines moving businesses to offshore vessels off California so they totally escape tax. He is afraid of any form of public support which, he considers, quickly becomes bureaucratic. It is worth adding that Thiel’s motto also shows his skepticism about the social benefits of innovation: “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” [2]

Upstream, there is therefore the question of direct returns and the actual role of the state. But without the incredible creativity of Steve Jobs at Apple, without the extraordinary ambition of Larry Page and Sergei Brin at Google, without the vision of Bob Swanson, a co-founder of Genentech, the world would probably not have experienced the same technological revolutions. Downstream, the question arises of how to create international rules on innovation. Let me make a wide digression. The Internet, another innovation initiated by public authorities, has become a major topic in the political, economic and fiscal fields. But “neutrality and self-organization are part of the libertarian options […] and are inconsistent with politics. Humanity must seize this opportunity to revisit what is considered important. […] The Internet enables the emergence of a global political space, but it is still to be invented. At the time of this invention, the Internet will probably be gone!” [3]

If from experience I lean more toward Thiel’s view on innovation as an individual act of exception, actually quite far from the public investment, even if it is its seed, yet, I cannot agree with abandoning the public good. It is the soil that allows the emergence of exceptional talent. Companies also have their share of responsibility in discounting the importance of the collectivity. Just like in any complex human activity, innovation is a delicate balance between private and public actors. But especially today, issues have become global. The question is not so much as Mazzucato says that the role of the state has been largely underestimated in this process, but rather that the tax return has largely been decreased by globalization and the lack of economic governance.

Tax as a single global solution?

Does society receive any return from the public money spent on schools, roads, security? No, because it’s not an investment in the true sense of an objective of financial gain. These are infrastructure provisions that allow citizens and businesses to exist and develop properly. And they 8should) pay taxes in return. When Darpa funds Stanford, it is not sure that a student from Korea will not benefit from it and later work for Samsung. The concept of ​​supporting national champions seems of another age.

We are left with Tax, in a renewed vision of its global governance. Whether innovation is in the public or private domain, the world globalization will soon prevent from hiding behind the argument of whom is basically at its origin. Not only individuals but states also must agree upom a greater share of its profits, at the risk of serious crises. At a time when Switzerland reviews its tax policy and its citizens think they can create barriers from its neighbors as its borders, it is important to be aware that the current tensions are an opportunity to revisit the status of innovation in society before new major crises emerge. Wishful thinking?

[1] The Entrepreneurial State – Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. 2013, Anthem Press,
[2] Peter Thiel. Zero to One – Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future. Sept. 2014, Crown Business press,
[3] Boris Beaude. Les fins d’Internet. 2014, FYP Editions,

Ray Kurzweil has mostly wrong predictions

As often, Marc Voinchet had a remarkable broadcast this morning on France Culture. First a great guest, Cécile Lafontaine for her book The body market, the commodification of human life in the era of bioeconomy (in French only – my translation of the title) which goes beyond the adressed topic by asking questions about the tensions between the individual and society. It provides excellent answers to the debates opened by Thiel. But here I stop and let you discover the interview if the subject interests you.


In addtion Xavier de la Porte wrote an excellent chronicle that I copied directly from the website of France Culture on the French part of my blog (in order to be able to translate it here): The brain is not one million lines of code.

When we look at what the digital world has to say about the body and life, there is a high likeliness to find quickly intimidating predictions: “Soon we will all be cyborgs” and “In 2045, we will have completely merged with the machines.” A specialist in this kind of statements is a guy named Ray Kurzweil – which I mentioned here already. Pretty awesome inventor, wise businessman, Kurweil became in the last twenty years the promoter of a movement called transhumanism – which considers that humankind will soon merge with machines, thus giving rise to post-humanity – ideas that Kurzweil sold worldwide with books and conferences, ideas that he also sells to super-powerful companies: Google has hired him to run a program on teaching language to machines. The problem with Kurzweil – and many transhumanists – it is their strength of conviction that passes through a scientific-techno-philosophical discourse which we feel is not right, but without knowing exactly where. But recently , I came across evidence that Kurzweil says non-sense. I enjoyed my discovery and I want to share this joy with you.

It has to do with an important aspect of transhumanism: the belief always repeated that very soon we can duplicate our brains into computers. Kurzweil believes that this will be possible in 2020, and moreover, he has stored the brain of his deceased father in that perspective. And in order to support his thesis, here is the type of speech that Kurzweil gives: “The code of the brain is in the genome. The human genome is 3 billion base pairs, six billion bits, which is about 800 million bits after compression. After eliminating redundancies […] this information can be compressed into approximately 50 million bits. But the brain is about half of that, about 25 million bits, or one million lines of code.” And here, in a ruthless and intimidating demonstration, Kurzweil shows us a million lines of code suffice to duplicate the function of the human. (I say “sufficient” because it is just one million lines of code; for comparison, Microsoft Office 2013 is 45 million lines of code).

Except that for once, someone came forward to explain that Kurzweil told non-sense. This person is called Paul Zachary Myers. He is a recognized biologist at the University of Minnesota, specializing in developmental genetics and writes a blog called Pharyngula. And it is on his blog that Myers explains very calmly why what Kurzweil says is wrong. Here is his demonstration. The premise of the reasoning of Kurzweil is “The code of the brain is in the genome.” Totally wrong, says the researcher. The code of the brain is not encoded in the genome. What is in the genome is a collection of molecular tools which is the regulating portion of the genome, which makes cells sensitive to interactions with a complex environment. During its development, the brain unfolds through interactions between cells, interactions which we understand today a small part only. The final result is a brain that is much more complex than the sum of nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. One can not deduce a brain from the protein sequences of its genome. How will these sequences express is dependent on the environment and the history of hundreds of billions of cells, interdependent on each other. We have no way to calculate in principle all possible interactions and functions of a single protein with tens of thousands of others who are in the cell, which is the essential first step in the execution of the unlikely algorithm of Kurzweil. In support of his argument, the researcher takes a few examples of some proteins and shows how the interactions are numerous, complex and mostly still unknown.

What is very interesting is that Myers states that he is not hostile to the idea that the brain is a kind of computer, and we will be able to artificially reproduce one day its functions. But he says that he does not need to say stupide nonsense, as does Kurzweil and build hisreasoning on false premises. And here is for you, Kurzweil. If only more researchers could take more time to bring their expertise to question the transhumanist speech, it may save us to hear many absurdities and attend another commodification of human life, which is about seeling biotechnology dream.