Category Archives: Innovation

The Tesla Index, the new Innovation metric

There is no doubt about it, and as the summer begins smoothly, I allow myself an article somewhat less serious than usual, which confirms the thesis of my previous article, The University-based Startup Porsche Principle. Or is it the Tesla Principle?

Innovation is a complex topic but this does not prevent the desire to measure it. The Global Innovation Index with its 83 parameters is the best illustration of this. But cann’t we make it simpler? I propose the simpler Tesla Index which measures the number of Tesla linked to the institution which innovation is to be measured. It shows a certain financial success combined with a curiosity for novelty. We can always bring it back to the size of the entity if necessary …

At EPFL, the Tesla index according to my measures is 4 as of June 26, 2017 …

A Tesla, being charged on the EPFL campus on June 26, 2017…

on June 15, 2017

on June 13, 2017

on May 10, 2017

then the index goes up to 5, on July 4, 2017

then the index goes up to 7, on July 14, 2017 (I am not sure the red one is not the one I found first above). Thanks, Aurélien!

When the Inventor of the Microprocessor and Founder of Synaptics Talks

I had never mentioned here Federico Faggin, another European who became a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He was at EPFL today where he delivered an amazing speech about creativity and courage, the two elements inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs critically need. If you do not know him, just rush to his wikipedia page: “an Italian physicist, inventor and entrepreneur, widely known for designing the first commercial microprocessor. […] He was co-founder, with Ralph Ungermann, and CEO of Zilog, the first company solely dedicated to microprocessors. He was also co-founder and CEO of Cygnet Technologies and of Synaptics.”

I hope his talk will be put online, in which case I will give the reference later. In the mean time, here are just 3 pictures (taken by a colleague, thanks!) about his lessons learned.

– If you see a ‘little’ technical problem you don’t understand, don’t dismiss it: Face it and find its root cause
– Likewise, when you perceive that something is not working with an employee, act promptly: do not let performance or attitude issues fester
– Be open to receive solutions from anywhere: colleagues, literature, intuitions, dreams
– Strike the right balance between freedom and control
– ‘Throw an idea up in the air and leave’
– The power is in in the team: Foster a team spirit with passion for innovation and for quality products

– Always identify the critical issues and pay attention primarily to them
– Business problems are not technical problems
– Logical reasoning is good but watch out for the assumptions
– Intuition is your friend
– Risk cannot be avoided – you need courage
– Never underestimate the competition
– ‘Sensing’ the right product and the right time to market is the most important decision

– Articulate and explain the values, vision, mission, strategy and objectives of the company to all employees
– People watch and copy what you do, not what you say: The company culture is shaped by the actions and not the talk of the CEO
– Teach people how to make decisions based on principles and values
– Push decision making to the lowest possible level in the organization
– Know when it’s time to move on and make a change for yourself

As a conclusion to this post, here is my usual cap. table when I have data about founders. Here is Synaptics.

The Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt (Part III) – the Recipe

After my initial notes (part I) and the importance of culture (part II) in the Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt, here are my new notes about their recipe to build efficient ecosystems for entrepreneurial innovation. I will finish with a part IV about venture capital.

Again the authors remind us that “innovation is chaotic, serendipitous and uncontrollable, so processes that are linear and controlled are rarely self-sustaining. In contrast, what we strive for in a Rainforest is a system that yields immense impact, is low-cost, and generates internal sustainability. The only possible way to achieve these goals is to build a community of innovators where transaction costs have been reduced through the creation of trust, social norms, connectivity and diversity.” [Page 183]

So their recipe is not so much a recipe as a cure. In fact they say “rather than thinking like macroeconomists, to change behavior, we must think like psychiatrists […] We build rainforests by shaping the outward behavior of innovators. Over time, those behaviors can create changes in attitude, and eventually, the changes in attitude can lead to change in beliefs”. [Page 200-1]

In the recipe [pages 194-200], there is Hardware made of 4 “P”s: People, Professional, (i.e. institutions), Physical (i.e. infrastructure) and Policy. Hardware is necessary but not sufficient. There is also Software, with 5 pillars, Diversity, Extra-Rational Motivations, Social Trust, Rules (see my previous post) and Interpretation of the Rules. The Keystones will make all this possible.

The Rainforest canvas may be a helpful tool to assess the situation of an ecosystem in its physical and cultural components:

About Role Models, they have the interesting Porsche principle. “This principle holds that one of the greatest motivators for professors or graduate students on campus to start new companies is when one of their colleagues drives up in a new Porsche after selling their startup”. [Page 210] To be honest, today, at EPFL and probably elsewhere, I would call it the Tesla principle… (see my previous post…The University-based Startup Porsche Principle. Or is it the Tesla Principle?)

In their epilogue, the authors explain that “Perhaps, instead of fighting the chaos, we need to become more comfortable with it. Perhaps we just need a better map. The Rules of the Rainforest provide a useful map – one that shows the way to balance the freedom of chaos with the beauty of collaboration. […] It requires a ‘joyful participation’ in the ups and downs, the mistakes and the failures that are inevitable. Thus, love is like a solution to chaos. ” [page 280] They use a magnificent quotation from Richard Feynman to whom a student asked to write a message to his mother so that she would be interested in science. Here it is: “Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science – for to fill your hear with love is enough. Richard Feynman (the man you watched on BBC ‘Horizon'”.

Here is a slideshare presentation by the authors, which beautifully summarizes their vision.

The Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt. Part 2: the Importance of Culture

After my introductory post about The Rainforest – The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt, which focused on the importance of trust, here is a second piece about culture. The final part will describe how the authors claim they know the recipe to build rainforests. What is remarkable with the Rainforest is the ambition to explain that innovation is mostly cultural so that at the micro-level it cannot really be engineered, but at the macro-level rainforests can be built. I am not sure the authors are right, but the effort is really to be recognized.

One lesson of the Rainforest is that outcomes cannot be engineered. […] Serendipity itself cannot be engineered but an environment that is conducive to serendipity can be. [Page 65]

In their chapter 3 about People, they begin with Keystones, not Entrepreneurs. “What defines a Keystone? Over the years, we have observed certain individuals practicing a unique manner of human interaction that is critical to the growth of entrepreneurial innovation. […] These people are usually missing, or at least too scarce, in almost all regions that have failed at generating significant amounts of entrepreneurial innovation.” [Page 71]

These people are integrative, influential and impactful, they are brokers of social trust (by contrast to entrepreneurs who are people who absorb information, learn from practice and seek opportunities). “The San Francisco Bay Area has a vastly higher percentage of people who are involved in multiple firms. 4.5% of the actors counted in the Bay Area were involved in three or more startups, compared to 2.9% in Boston, 2% in San Diego, […] 1.2% in Austin […] 0.7% in Portland. […] The bay Area has a significantly higher share of individuals who are extremely connected and contribute to the growth of multiple startup ventures”. [Page 74]

The authors also show the diversity of psychologies, the diversity of backgrounds in people which are still connected and work together. “We see these unconscious behaviors at work with innovators everywhere in the world. Scientists versus entrepreneurs. Startups versus large corporations. Investors versus investees. These tribal conflicts can be obstacles to the development of Rainforests.” [Page 109] All the more that: “Similarly the process of building a startup company is one in which people must often rely on gut-level decision-making. Entrepreneurial innovation, by its nature, is virtually a never-ending series of educated guesses. Almost every decision is based substantially incomplete information.” [Page 106]

America is the building of a society not burdened by historical tribes. […] They are less chained to the past. Instead Americans tend to be identified by self-reliance. […] People still run to California today. It is commonly regarded as the land of pioneers, nonconformists, artists, and rebels. [Page 116] Culture is critical to the way economic systems function because it provides the rules of engagement between people that hopefully can maximize their collective well-being. [Page 118] The authors are not naïve but claim that all these people need to find the right balance. A venture capitalist is caught between trying to own as much of a company as possible and trying to leave enough equity in the hands of the entrepreneurial team to keep them fully incentivized. […] A VC wants to preserve a reputation. [Page 119] Innovative behavior is not driven by rational maximization. There are in fact other forces, which can be called extra-rational: competition, altruism, adventure, discovery, creativity, meaning, concern.

Here I cannot avoid mentioning the great (counter-)example of Orson Welles about the Scorpio and the Turtle… Hopefully nature is not everything, culture matters.

One mistake of policy makers is to underestimate these extra-rational motivations. “Governments and corporations often try to incentivize innovation by focusing on financial mechanisms, such as tax breaks, subsidies, grants and loans. But overall, this strategy has been poor. They cannot be only the ends in themselves.” [Page 127]

Traditional incentives, benefits and costs: [Page 124]
Some possibility of making more money
Sacrifice a stable income and career perhaps forever
Risk social disapproval from family, friends, potential spouses
Difficulty and fear of working with strangers outside conventional circles of trust, culture, ethnicity, language
Difficulty and extra effort in communicating effectively
Huge investment of time, effort, stress
Possibility of losing everything (depending on laws, regarding bankruptcy, partnerships, etc.)

Rainforest incentives, benefits and costs: [Page 126]
Perceived and possibly real opportunity of making more money (following role models that have validated the path already)
Joy of discovery, novelty, adventure, creativity, passion
Social approval (as a peer member of a community of innovators)
Joy of friendship, sharing, love working on a team, building new trust, common values and goals
Fulfillment from the possibility of making a difference in society, leaving a legacy for future generations
Thrill of competition
Freedom and independence
Little social punishment, often encouragement, from family and friends for taking a worthwhile risk
Some anxiety from meeting new people, but offset by the joy of making new friendships
Huge investment of time, effort, and stress, but viewed in a neutral or even positive light because pursuing a personal passion
Little risk of losing everything because new opportunities emerge in the process of experimentation
Much lower probability of failure from a broad community of fellow innovators.

And the authors claim what are needed are 7 rules [Page 156]:
– Break the rules and dream
– Open doors and listen
– Trust and be trusted
– Experiment and iterate together
– Seek fairness, not advantage.
– Err, fail and persist.
– Pay it forward.

People usually think of Silicon Valley as an anomaly in the otherwise “normal” history of the world, but what if we reversed that proposition? What if we envisioned Silicon Valley as the natural endpoint of a 50,000-year story? Perhaps it could be the latest stage in the evolution of human society, from a culture based on tribes to a culture based on pragmatic individuals. [page 152]

Look at Harari again if you have not not already…

Research Exploitation according to Jacques Lewiner

The excellent Paris Innovation Review (formerly known as the ParisTech review) just published an interview of Jacques Lewiner (for the ones not knowing him, you may want to have a look at Jacques Lewiner about Innovation. This new article is entitled Research exploitation: catching up at a quick pace!

It begins with:“Academic research is not only a driver of scientific progress. It is a means to change the world. Many discoveries, including in areas related to basic research, can lead to new processes, products or services.”

Lewiner then explains the complexity of a successful exploitation and biases related to it. “The first [bias] is that, when we think about exploitation, we stick to patents. […] But sticking to patents means ignoring the essential, i.e. the entrepreneurial aspect of exploitation. […] Hence the importance of the entrepreneurial aspect: encouraging researchers to found startups and develop by themselves the economic potential of their discovery. The second bias comes [with …] a strong reluctance to admit that a researcher can make money, or even a fortune. […] A researcher’s brain is government property!”

Then Lewiner adresses the topic of licensing – More about it in How much Equity Universities take in Start-ups from IP Licensing? So here is what he says: “Nothing prevents the institution from taking shares in the company. 5% of shares, for example, is a reasonable figure, close to what most dynamic ecosystems offer. […] Holding golden shares would be equally counterproductive. […] In short, we need a whole new culture of investment.”

Lewiner indeed insists on an adequate culture: “Speed is a real challenge and on this sense, a well-equipped institution with some experience and good contacts […] can offer a real added value. Role models can also play an incentive role for researchers. […] All these ingredients of the “startup culture” require transmission.”

In the end, I only disagree with his final comment: “I dream of the day when French doctoral students will answer to the question of what they will do after their thesis with the same mindset as their counterparts in Stanford or Harvard: ‘I’m still trying to figure out in which of my thesis supervisor’s startups I want to work with.’ ” I think Lewiner is wrong. Ideally, they should do their own start-ups, just like they do at Stanford

PS: thanks a lot to the colleague who mentioned this interview to me 🙂

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross

The Industries of the Future is not a very good book. Probably because it tries to talk about the future and nobody knows about it. But it has some merits that I will describe in the end…

Even worse, I think it is not as precise an analysis as is The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Bjorn Weigel. Why do I claim such a thing? Let me just mention one example. To show the potential of robots in the future, Ross reminds us Foxconn claim in 2011 that it would have installed one million robots in by 2015. (See for example Foxconn Will Replace Workers With 1 Million Robots in 3 Years). Ross even adds that Foxconn had already installed 300’000 robots. Erixon and Weigel have different views and explain that Foxconn had not even installed 50’000 robots in 2015. So who is right? I did some search and all media mentions 40’000 robots only in 2016… (see Foxconn reaches 40,000 robots of original 1 million robot automation goal). When you want to talk about the future, you need to be precise about the present…

Now his chapter The Geography of Future Markets provides interesting food for thought. Silicon Valley has been the center of high-tech innovation for nearly 50 years. Many regions have tried to copy it, without much success. But many regions have domain expertise such as Boston for biotech, Israel for security, Japan/SouthKorea/Germany for robotics, etc. If these regions leverage the future innovations, they will continue to be leaders. If not, “twentysomething” nerds without any domain expertise but with a lot entrepreneurial drive and technical know-how will take the lead. Ross provides examples but it is sufficient to look at what Elon Musk did to the payment industry (PayPal), automotive industry (Tesla) and aerospace industry (SpaceX). Silicon Valley has extensive experience in “scale-ups” and is not losing any of it…

The State of the European Tech

The recently published The State of the European Tech, co-sponsored by Atomico and Slush is an extremley interesting analysis of the European tech start-up and VC scene. it is a rather long 118-slide document but most (not all) pages provide food for thought.

Here are a couple of comments, in the page order:

– The introduction is too optimistic (slides 5-7). I doubt their title: the future is being invented in Europe. But it has always been Atomico’s founder vision: see Europe and Start-ups : should we worry? Or is there hope? The future will tell us… One interesting point though: London, Berlin and Paris are the 3 hubs main European hubs and Paris was probably underestimated (in the past).

– The entrepreneurial mindset is continuously improving (slides 15-16). Repeat entrepreneurs are more numerous (slide 18). And they mention their importance not so much as future successful entrepreneurs (you may know my doubts – check Serial entrepreneurs: are they better?) but because of the experience and network they bring.

– I love slide 21 with EPFL #4 world wide in Computer Science (though I hate these rankings!). Switzerland is clearly on the map together with the UK. I am honestly less convinced about the impact of business schools in tech (slide 22). Talent exists in Europe but may not be available for tech (slide 23).

– Again the three top hubs are obvious: together London, Paris and Berlin outnumber Silicon Valley. But the ranking from #4 to #20 is mostly linked to city size, not so much any unique positioning. Tech is creating jobs faster than other industries (slide 26). Never too late! But again Europe is fragmented with 153 identified tech hubs (slide 34)

Migrants (slides 27-29). Again the UK is #1. France and Germany follow. And Switzerland is well-ranked (except for non-Europeans).

– Local entrepreneurs want to stay home (slide 37): 60% prefer home to another place in Euope (17%) or Silicon Valley (12%), even if 25% of founders incorporated outside of their home country (slide 38). Clearly Europe exists! Even if slide 39 shows more local migrations inside Europe, with the exception of London and Berlin again and the links between hubs are weak (slide 41)

– The slides about venture capital are the most surprising. Slide 46 shows that the European investments have jumped from less than $5B before 2013 to $13B in 2015-16. (In comparison the US is about $30B). And the growth is consistent from early eseed ($0-2M) to early stage ($2-5M) and later stage ($10-50+M). I assemble here their data about the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland (slides 50-52). A new generation of investors is confirmed, those who were entrepreneurs 1st (slide 60). The early such actors were Atomico, Liautaud/Balderton, Niel/Kima. But many emerge. A new generation of funds also emerge (slide 64), and yes, US funds invest in Europe (slide 65)


– Their section about deep tech is less convincing (to me). Probably I did not fully understand what they meant by that and why it would be so special. Slides 78-9 about US tech giants coming to Europe and about their acquisitions in Europe is worth checking though.

– I was not convinced either about the growing awareness of European corporations of the importance of tech. Their investments and acquisitions are still small compared to their US counterparts (slides 84-86). But slide 83 is the confirmation of a scary situation. This is another illustration of the Darwinian and Lamarckian innovation. Look at next figure.


– The section about scale-ups and exits (slides 89-101) could have been called unicorns & IPOs. I see bubbles and low value creations. Not good enough and not enough tech…

– Finally the lside about perceived risks is worth spending some time. they classify them as Business issues (40%); Economic issues (30%); European issues (22%); International issues (8%). But somehow their classification is subjective. For example if you combine risk aversion (4%), fear (2%), ambition (2%), that is 8%. And talent (4%), innovation (3%) and education (2%) would be another 9%. These elements which I consider as cultural could be considered as quite high…

All these notes were taken while reading so don’t see them as a deep analysis and you should build your own views about this really interesting analysis.

The Nobel Prize for Thomas Piketty?

I have already said here how much I liked Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see Has the world gone crazy? Maybe…). In finally ending my reading of the French edition of this 970-page book, I could not help thinking that the author would soon have the Nobel Prize in Economics, even though I have no competence to judge.


When reading his conclusion, I found in the author’s words one of the reasons for my respect regarding this work: “Let us repeat it: the sources gathered in this book are more extensive than those of the previous authors, but they are imperfect and incomplete. All the conclusions I have reached are inherently fragile and deserve to be challenged and debated. Research in social science is not intended to produce ready-made mathematical certainties and to substitute for public, democratic and contradictory debate” [Page 941].

He adds further on: “I see no other place for the economy but as a sub-discipline of the social sciences. […] I do not much like the expression “economic science”, which seems to me to be terribly arrogant and which could lead one to believe that the economy would have reached a higher scientific specificity, distinct from other social sciences. […] One can, for example, spend a great deal of time demonstrating the indisputable existence of a pure and true causality, by forgetting in passing that the question treated is sometimes of limited interest.” [Page 945-7].

Piketty also summarizes his work in a few lines [Page 942]:

“The general lesson of my inquiry is that the dynamic evolution of a market economy and of private property, left to itself, contains within it important convergent forces, linked in particular to the dissemination of knowledge and qualifications, but also powerful forces of divergence, potentially threatening for our democratic societies and the values ​​of social justice on which they are based.

The main destabilizing force is related to the fact that the private rate of return on capital r can be strongly and permanently higher than the growth rate of income and output. The inequality r > g implies that the heritages of the past recapitalize faster than the rate of increase of production and wages. […] The entrepreneur tends inevitably to become an annuitant. […] The past devours the future.”

And the solution is clear: “The right solution is the progressive annual tax on capital. […] The difficulty is that this solution requires a very high degree of international cooperation and regional political integration” [Pages 943-44].

All is said.

I can not help ending this brief article by recalling a striking example among the multitude of data analyzed:


The digital revolution: stakes and challenges (for Switzerland).

My latest contribution to Enterprise Romande, this time about the digital revolution. Below is my “quick and dirty” translation.


I have always been suspicious of fashionable expressions and buzzwords (nanotechnologies, Health Valley, etc.) that are often meaningless and refer to societal or political issues without inducing the slightest change. “Digital Revolution” should not have been an exception to my rule. But the stakes ahead are of a completely different nature and a few salutary readings quickly made me change my mind.

Far from home, President Barack Obama has just published in The Economist a text, which must be read absolutely, the Way Ahead [1] and a series of interviews in Wired [2] calling for confidence in technological progress and for supporting the development of artificial intelligence. His optimism and enthusiasm for the future, even moderated by the challenges and stakes ahead, are impressive and his only vision of the world makes him undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders in history.

Closer to us, Angela Merkel and Johann Schneider-Ammann also took the measure of a revolution which Germany and Switzerland will have to take into account despite the solidity of their economy (see [3] for example). The article “Smart Industry 4.0 in Switzerland” by Matthias Kaiserswerth [4] brilliantly describes the Swiss digital landscape, the stakes and the challenges.

The stakes are simple: there is no doubt that all sectors of the economy, from industry to services, will be affected, not to say “disrupted” by the acceleration of digital transformations. So far, only information and communication technologies (ICT) have been impacted. But today all services can be threatened by the “uberization”. And tomorrow the German automotive industry will be challenged by the Googles, Apples and other Teslas of the world, the Swiss watch industry by the connected watch. And the day after tomorrow, perhaps, bank services by blockchain, health services by personalized medicine and even more seriously the world of labor by robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. Without any reaction from us, Europeans, we will become consumers only, then unable to consume due to lack of resources.

The challenges are up to what is at stake. They start with education and I fear that the actors and decision-makers in primary and secondary education have not understood that Word and Excel are not enough to raise awareness about the algorithmic culture. In terms of vocational training, Kaiserswerth estimates that there will be a shortage of over 30,000 digital experts in Switzerland in 2022. Yet ICT represents more than 20,000 jobs in French-speaking Switzerland alone (in fact about as much as Medtech and Biotech together). But except some great success stories (Temenos, Logitech, Swissquote), most jobs are created by large foreign companies (IBM, HP) or service companies. In Zurich, the leader is called Google. For more than 20 years I have been trying, often unsuccessfully, to describe Europe’s innovation gaps by shaking the banner of a shortage of start-ups that have become such giants as the GAFAs.

An awareness of the challenges ahead is welcome as the country has time to adapt. At least if we react now. Much more needs to be done to integrate digital technologies in education and training and to increase the research effort in these new fields, at the risk of lagging behind. But even this will not be enough. The Americans have sufficiently shown that the first digital revolution, far from being solely technological, was also cultural. We must stimulate the desire. Why are there so few computer science students in our universities? Innovation itself has drastically changed. Innovation has deserted the laboratories of large groups to find refuge in the start-up garages. I dream that our alarmed decision makers do not remain as too often attached to short-term messages and invest in education, research and innovation by start-ups to enable the Swiss economy with its large corporations and many SMEs to adapt to a revolution rich in opportunities. Switzerland has the means. Does it have the will?


The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Bjorn Weigel

The Innovation Illusion: How So Little is Created by So Many Working So Hard by Fredrik Erixon, Bjorn Weigel is a rather strange book but very interesting. I fully agree with most of the authors’ analyses about the illusions we have created around innovation. Less sure I agree with some of their important claims. Their “very liberal” point of view, not to say libertarian, makes their claims sometimes extreme, but in the end, I am not even sure my own claim…


But before beginning, let me mention another interesting piece of analysis from Steve Blank about the innovators. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, (The Fatal Flaw That Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Shared), an article that he developed further on his blog, Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer and Why He Still Has His Job at Apple, Blank explains how difficult it is to replace a visionary entrepreneur and how they are mostly replaced by executors. I don’t disagree with an answer / analysis on Forbes, Why Apple CEO Tim Cook Is Doing Fine: A Response To Steve Blank’s Critique Of Execution . In a way nobody knows how to innovate in a disruptive manner so the rational decision is to focus on execution.

Which brings me back to the Innovation Illusion. My main concern is that the authors claim capitalism has lost its soul, and they explain how, but I am not sure we have answers, in the same way nobody knew how to replace Steve Jobs so that Apple would still innovate… Below, I will quote the authors a lot. I begin first with a brief synthesis of which you will find the elements again later. Basically, the authors could have titled their book Innovation in the XXIst Century (by reference to Piketty’s extraordinary work on capital). Their work probably has the same ambition but may not have had the same means.
– Chapters 3 to 6 describe the reasons why innovation has slowed down, dedicated to capital, managerialism, globalization and regulation respectively.
– Chapter 8 – Capitalism and Robots – is one of the most interesting and I feel much closer to the authors here: “Should we prepare for a technological blitz? The troubling reality is that we should fear an innovation famine rather than an innovation feast.”
– Chapter 9 – The Future and How to Prevent It – is a convincing conclusion, although it is slightly disappointing. Analysis is one thing. The recommendations are much more difficult. I cannot help but feel embarrassed about the main argument that more liberalism will improve the situation. But the richness of the analysis makes this book an unavoidable reading (even if it is demanding …)
Their final recommendation summarize in: “To spark new life in capitalism, attention must be given to, first, severing the link between gray capital and corporate ownership; second, giving competition a real boost; and third, nurturing a culture of dissent and eccentricity.”

Now my usual way of commenting, i.e. by quoting:

[Pages 10-11] In Germany’s DAX30 index of leading companies, only two were founded after 1970. In France’s CAC40 there is only one. In Sweden, 30 of the 50 biggest companies were created before the start of World War I in 1914 and the remaining 20 were founded prior to 1970. If you compile a list of Europe’s 100 most valuable companies, none were actually created in the past 40 years. America is different, but less different from Europe than it used to be.

Their initial analysis [page 16]: The four factors that have made Western capitalism dull and hidebound are gray capital, corporate managerialism, globalization, and complex regulation.

Chapter 2 – When Capitalism became Middle-aged – describes the lack of investment (in innovation) and the slowing GDP growth. The authors show they are different reasons if you look at Italy, France, Germany or the USA.

[Page 29] Take the example of telecommunications. The telecom sector has expanded fast in the past three decades. But for that expansion to happen, companies and governments needed to invest in network infrastructure and other fixed capital – and that is exactly what they did. Likewise, to use these networks, companies and households had to lay out capital expenditures in buying telecommunications equipment like mobile phones and broadband routers. And that is exactly what they did. The telecom example, however, is not representative for entire Western economies. Business investment growth in Western economies is declining and does not follow the pattern you would expect from an economy moving in the direction of rapid innovation fast [productivity] growth.

[Page 33] Moreover, like the rest of society, the concept of “research” in the corporate sector has changed. While the image of corporate research still evokes places like AT&T’s Bell Labs (whose scholars have received eight Nobel Prizes) and Xerox’s Palo Alto research center (PARC), the reality is that a declining share of R&D budgets is spent on research.

[Page 34] Many companies have reacted to problems with their R&D strategy (some of which relate to increasing regulatory costs) by “outsourcing” their R&D to smaller firms that can take bigger risks. Once the R&D investments have begun to mature into innovative products, large companies have acquired them and integrated them into their sales and marketing infrastructure. Pharmaceuticals is one such sector. Time will tell if this strategy works or not. Perhaps it is efficient at the corporate level; perhaps it will destroy the innovation ethos.

[Page 38] Indeed, Studying 15 years of delistings, a group of economists showed that from 1997 to 2012, the US had 8327 delists, of which 4957 were due to mergers. (Cf my own post Cisco’s A&D)

I will not enter into much detail about Chapters 3-6 which describes the reasons why innovation has slowed, chapters dedicated respectively to gray capital, corporate managerialism, globalization, and regulation. Here are some interesting extracts though:

[Page 43] “Capitalists should not be the targets of the angry left or right. People with money and capitalists are not the same thing. […] The tenor of ownership in the capitalist system has changed profoundly, and not for the better. Big capitalists still exist, and some new ones have been minted too, especially in the digital sector. Yet the color of capitalism has turned gray.”

[Page 45] Where market and regulatory trends lead to far greater homogenization of investor behavior, the general profile of corporate ownership gradually comes to reflect broad macro trends and issues around systemic risks rather than the actual merits of a company and its future.

[Page 86] The authors criticize the common negative view about entrepreneurship, i.e. “today we talk about entrepreneurship versus bureaucracy. The entrepreneur represents all beauty in life. It represents progress, optimism and eternal success. The entrepreneur does not need to care about the rest of society. This constant talk about entrepreneurs is dangerous. We can’t afford many of them… The main part of industrial activity and societal maintenance is not built on so-called entrepreneurship.” Or is it?

[Page 89-90] The authors remind us of the difference between risk and uncertainty. Risks can be priced, for instance, just as is done in an insurance contract. […] Uncertainty however is different, in the sense that it cannot be contracted out, neither internally within a firm nor to the market. […] While companies have grown skilled at measuring and handling risks, they have crippled their ability to deal with uncertainty.

[Page 93] Performance tools are great for augmenting operational performance. There is nothing wrong with that aspiration or the tools themselves; all companies can perpetually need to improve, and using best practice is indisputably efficient. But apart from connecting measurements with actual improvements, the platoon of executives graduating from business schools came to believe that the tools were the answer to everything, including how a company should strategize for something new to make money in the future. While the recipe for corporate success cannot be found in a text-book, and not everyone is an entrepreneur just because they have read a book on entrepreneurship, the dominating notion was that strategizing for something new was almost equal to finessing costs by a few percent every year, gradually improving sales tactics, analyzing a key performance ratio here and adding another staffer there, and generally being opportunistic.

(I must quote Blank here again: Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science,” and anyone could do it. I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong. It’s not that the tools are wrong. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well. When page-layout programs came out with the Macintosh in 1984, everyone thought it was going to be the end of graphic artists and designers. “Now everyone can do design,” was the mantra. Users quickly learned how hard it was do design well and again hired professionals. The same thing happened with the first bit-mapped word processors. We didn’t get more or better authors. Instead we ended up with poorly written documents that looked like ransom notes. It may be we can increase the number of founders and entrepreneurial employees, with better tools, more money, and greater education. But it’s more likely that until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all.”)

[Page 95] To look beyond what is quantifiable from current markets and aim for something new is pretty much the whole idea behind innovation. […] Before penicillin was invented, the market for it did not exist. Before the internet, the market for domain names or web designers was unknown. Before the automobile, who could calculate the return on investment in the car market?

[Page 105] Executive recruiters were not scouting for entrepreneurial people like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg to take up key positions in multinationals. They wanted executives with specialisms in optimization, management, logistics, capital markets, and other key operative functions of a firm. […] And these partners were planners, not entrepreneurs.

[Page 107] Clearly, the era of globalization deserves a central place in future history textbooks. Markets were liberalized. Inflation was brought under control. New forces of productivity were unleashed, lowering the price of goods and raising real income.

[Page 110] Standing behind the fast growth had been, first and foremost, the expansion of emerging markets as sources and destinations of trade, especially China’s move into the global economy. The country’s share of global exports doubled between 1990 and 1996. And then it doubled again between 1996 and 2001, and doubled yet again between in 2001 and 2006. Since 2006, it has grown by just 50 percent. For China and other countries the development was extraordinary. In 2014, China’s GDP per capita was 13 times higher than in 1990, when measured in purchasing power.

[Page 119-121] Second-generation globalization could spur efficiency rather than contestable innovation. […] The patterns of competition emerging under the second-generation globalization period increasingly resembled so-called oligopolistic and monopolistic competition. In a nutshell, globalization enabled concentration and slowed innovation…

[Page 125] A start-up based on a new drug, chemical, battery, turbine technology, or toothbrush for that matter, will have to invest far more today than 20 years ago in order to get into the market and reach scale. It is not just that the price of entry has gone up, but that production is so tightly knitted and efficient that it is difficult to contest the market without stepping into one of the production networks. The more firms have tightened their boundaries, the more they have had to focus on repelling boarders and preventing intruders.

[Page 128-130] Specialized organizations are often better than less specialized organizations at accommodating incremental technological change and the results of investment in research and development with that profile. However, when inventions and discoveries challenge the profile of specialization and the boundaries of the prevailing economic organization, specialization often turns out into a cost. When that happens – as in the case of Nokia and Microsoft – specialization can actually become a factor of resistance to any innovation that disrupts and charts a different future than the one a firm has invested in. […] The high degree of specialization in today’s economy both spurs incremental innovation and slows down radical innovation. […] Technical complexity, social risk management (including lower tolerance for unintended consequences), diminishing returns, and talent challenges have all combined to raise the cost threshold of breakthrough innovation, even as downstream the costs of proliferation – reproducing, replicating, diffusing, disseminating, and indeed hacking innovation – have decreased. Big companies know this by heart. They learnt to navigate this landscape of innovation a long time ago – and thus lost their “Schumpetarian” dispositions.

[Page 146] The flip side of the coin is that the rate of knowledge obsolescence has increased. […] Economist Edwin Mansfield, a scholar of knowledge diffusion, found in a 1985 study of industrial technology that 70 percent of product innovations were known and understood by competitors 12 months after the innovation. That process now works much faster. In later studies, several economists have found the economic lifetime of patents to be much shorter than their duration. [For example…] half of the computer patents are worthless within ten years of their application date.

[Page 149] While there is much that speaks for the narrative of accelerating diffusion, […] the bigger the economic effect of an innovation, the more old capital needs to be retired to make space for the new technology and new capital. With declining levels of investment, the diffusion of new innovation has no necessarily accelerated in the past decade or had a greater economic impact than in the past.

Chapter 7 – Killing Frontier Innovation – claims that the precautionary principle is also killing innovation. The authors give examples about the use of Cadmium & Quantum Dots, about Genetically Modified organisms (GMOs) and their impact on BASF and Monsanto’s strategy, and about coolants in Mercedes Benz cars. It is also true that emerging self-driving cars have created new philosophical debates about “assignments of liability in the events of accidents” [Page 167].

I have to admit that it is a topic where I am not fully convinced by the authors. They give the feeling that innovators and experts should not be blocked by policy makers. With the risk of alienation from society and people… a tough topic. It is true that “uncertainty changes the composition of business investments and expenditure to the disadvantage of R&D and innovation.” [Page169]

But they also acknowledge that “in fact, sometimes innovation can be encouraged by regulation. [..] Take the example of US regulations enacted in the 1970s to lift the environmental standard of automobiles. Several scholars have found that these regulations prompted greater innovation activity among American automobile firms and that they had to shift the allocation of the R&D budget from D to R. […] However [they claim], there are limits to what regulation can achieve. […] Regulation that deters innovation tends to be more frequent in sectors that are important for pushing the technological frontier and that could lift productivity and economic growth” [Pages 170-72].

Chapter 8- Capitalism and Robots – is one of the most interesting one and I feel much closer to the authors here: “Should we prepare for a technological blitz? The troubling reality is that we should fear an innovation famine rather than an innovation feast. The thesis of a New Machine Age radically contradicts our view of stagnating economies, increasingly incapable of catering for their own future. Perhaps we are the old men out, but for us the thesis is a utopian rather than a dystopian vision of the future” [Page 179]. “Undoubtedly, many of the coming innovations in big data, the Internet of Things, machine intelligence, robotics, and more should be commended, yet they fail to impress, at least our technology-frustrated generation. […] We do not get around in flying cars. Nor do we have home fusion reactors. […] New knowledge does not automatically translate into innovation.” [Page 180]

Automation, like previous technological shifts, destroyed jobs, but it also created new ones, and much safer and better-paid jobs at that. […] Contemporary prophets of the New Machine Age make the same mistake. They judge the speed and quality of future innovation on the technological creation they see today, not on how the economy works. […] Intriguingly, they also seem to share the key economic gospels of previous eras of technology: fascination and fear. […] Finally they worry that employment opportunities will be destroyed in the wake of new innovations. […] they ignore two key features about radical innovation. For new technology to power fast-and-furious innovation there has to be, first, entrepreneurship, and second, a general economic dynamism that promotes the contestability of markets. [Page 184]

Innovation comes mainly from its adoption, not from its creation. […] In the example of the global warming, reductions of carbon emissions take longer because of costs and limits in quickly substituting new capital for old. […] Entrepreneurs control their own performance, but they cannot control unpredictable markets; if they could, business failures would be a matter of choice. Innovation based only on its own technological or corporate merits does not have the power to break intro markets. Markets are far too complex for that to happen. [Page 185]

The authors remind us of the recent failure of the Google Glass and also that Ericsson had presented a tablet (the Cordless Web Screen) in 2000. Or the slow evolution of electronic payments since the first plastic cards in 1959. “Tech failures are just one of the problems faced by new innovations. New technologies have to fight for a place in the market. […] The reason is market complexity. […] Think about the infrastructure and how long it took to create that. It is very difficult to change merchant behavior. No one knows how this market will evolve, but markets, competition and consumer behavior – not only the technology itself – will determine its future success. The same is true for another promising technology that can be applied to the payment markets: blockchain. […] Some have billed it as a greater technological leap than the internet for capital markets. Perhaps it will be, but the hype around the technology is premature and the expectation of big market changes is an aspiration.” [Page 187]

Markets are becoming increasingly complex because of vertical and horizontal specialization and a confluence of perpetual trial-and-error processes and generations of technologies, traditions, and customer values. [Page 188]

Don’t get us wrong: the passion of entrepreneurs is exactly why societies should appreciate and encourage them. If they were not, few new companies would make it past their first birthday. Passion is why they sacrifice time with family and friends or neglect private interests and put their money and reputation on the line. […] But the “hockey-stick world” is a fantasy. […] George Foster has analyzed 158,000 early companies and almost two thirds of them experienced one or more consecutive years of decline in the third to fifth year of existence. (Cf “Are Startups Really Jobs Engines?”) […] Markets are difficult to read, let alone manoeuver, even for skilled entrepreneurs. [Pages 189-90]

The proportion of firms less than a year old as a share of all firms in the American economy has steadily abated, from a level of approximately 16 percent, to slightly over 10 percent today. […] Only one-third of all firms were 11 or older in 1987, compared to nearly half of all firms in 2012. […] Entrepreneurship is also on an aging trend. […] In 1996, people aged between 20 and 30launched approximately 35 percent of all start-ups in America; in 2014, they only launched 18 percent of them. […] Around 3 percent of all firms qualified as high-growth companies in 1994-97, but in 2008-11 that share had been cut by half. True the latter period came amid a crisis-recovery cycle and it may be that declining business dynamism followed on the heels of the general downturn. However, that is not the lesson from history: crises, for sure tend to hit output and corporate size, but they also create good opportunities for new firms with the capacity to grow. [Pages 191-2]


And the authors go much further [Pages 195-6]: There is even more conclusive evidence against the hypothesis of discriminate dynamism. Investment in ICT equipment when measured as a share of GDP has been on the decline since the beginning of the millennium. […] Big claims require big evidence. And should make people doubt rather than accept the promise of fast-and-furious innovation is that it is thin in actual confirmation. […] The argument comes in three different instalments. First […] cyclical effects have hidden the structural shifts taking place in the Western economy. Second, there is a growing disconnect between recorded data and the real improvements. […] Third the decoupling of productivity and labor incomes prove the transformational change of technology.

But the authors dismiss the arguments. [Page 196-8] The cyclical effects have substantially weakened over time to become acyclical. Technology optimists like Brynjolfsson and McAfee would disagree, but [their] propositions do not stand up scrutiny. The second argument is more intriguing. But the problem of measuring innovation was settled a long time ago. The real debate should be about whether the problem has increased or decreased over time. […] Unfortunately, those who make the claim about the growing mismeasurement of innovation do not have much conclusive evidence supporting their thesis. […] The productivity slowdown has been universal for Western economies and it shows next to no variation when compared to ICT intensity in the economy. […] Moreover, if it were true that recorded economic output was significantly below the actual value, there would be at least one sector where that relationship did not hold – the sector that produces and services all the digital hardware and software. It is difficult to find evidence supporting that view. The growth in revenues and productivity is simply too small to account even a fraction of the mismeasurement.

[Page 201] Like so much else in the gospel of the New Machine Age, the criticism about productivity, real GDP and consumer surplus fails to appreciate other periods in history than our current time. It is as if the period of innovation is a recent phenomenon, something that merged via the internet.

Here a side comment, of interest only for those interested in start-up valuation, [page 200]: Such valuations rather reflect smart structures of financing. Equity investors are in the business of buying and selling company shares. And the price of a share is the result of both internal and external factors – such as capital market trends, regulatory frameworks, and substitute goods. To safeguard investments from the changing dynamics of markets, investors naturally protect themselves. Later investors (referring to investment stages) routinely use liquidation preferences to guarantee returns even if future liquidation valuations disappoint. Layers upon layers of liquidation preferences are virtually the norm and it helps drive private company valuation by allowing for investors to accept higher valuations. If expectations are not met, investors are still protected and get their money back before founders and employers. And it all looks good from the outside; it shows business strength and attracts employees, customers, partners and new investors. But many times it is a house of cards.

Technology and income – are they decoupling? Even there, the authors disagree with authors such as William Galston, Martin Ford or Brynjolfsson and McAfee again [page 202] adding there seems to be growing support for the proposition that productivity growth destroys jobs. [But] the thrust of serious analysis suggests that productivity growth does not decrease demand for labor and that the relationship between productivity and unemployment is trivial. Productivity growth, however, changes the composition of labor. Naturally, productivity growth and innovation can lead to capital substituting for labor, and it is generally acknowledged that economies have technological unemployment. […] but about the decoupling story: is that thesis more convincing? No, is the simple answer.

“Harvard economist Robert Lawrence has measured net output per hour and adjusted compensation with the same deflator, to allow for comparison over time, and comes to a sobering conclusion for the United States. All things taken together, the gap between productivity and compensation growth between 1970 and 2000 generally does support the thesis of a dramatic decoupling”. [Page 205]


But the authors again show the complexity of the causes, in Germany, in the USA, in the UK, in Sweden. “Three sectors explain about two-thirds of the falling share of labor income in the US manufacturing sector, and in all three sectors new technology tends to augment labor rather than capital. In other words, the marginal output of labor has gone up faster than the marginal product of capital.” [Page 206] In Sweden, “While income inequality has accelerated rapidly, the real cost of labor closely follows productivity.” [Page 207]

What is dramatic however is the long-term effect of lower productivity growth. White House economists, comparing various effects on pay from different sources of growth, suggest that if productivity growth between 1973 and 2013 had been the same as productivity growth prior to 1973, incomes would have been 58 percent (or 30,000) higher in the United States. By contrast, if income equality has stayed the same, incomes today would “only” be 18 percent (or $9,000) higher. [Page 207]

And what about the Foxconn legend! “In 2011 its Chief Executive Officer, Terry Gou, announced it was aiming for 1 million robots. […] Its 1.2 million workers assemble products for Apple, Sony, Nokia, Motorola, and others. The example of Foxconn became the smoking gun for believers in the New Machine Age. […] In early 2015, Gou was still on the offensive, claiming that 70 percent of assembly-line work would be automated within three years. […] later Gou’s story changed. In fact, after his bold announcement, Foxconn had not installed more than 50,000 “automated employees” well into 2015. That summer, Gou suddenly retracted his claim and blamed the media for having misunderstood the original announcement. Robots, he now claimed, would substitute for only 30 percent of Foxconn’s manpower – and it would happen in five, not three years. […] the jury is still out on Foxconn, but the chronicle of its robotization is revealing. [Pages 209-10]

And the authors add, “it is not technology we should worry about, but economic behavior determined or aided by regulatory uncertainty and corporate leaders whose lives are too focused on rentier returns.” [Page 214]

Chapter 9 – the Future and How to Prevent It – is a convincing even if slightly disappointing conclusion. Analysis is one thing. Recommendations are much more challenging. They convincingly use the BRIC acronym for a Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept. They focus a lot on regulations as a critical blocking point. Regulatory uncertainty has three main sources: political leaders have become a very anxious species, occupied as much with the Twitter reaction to policy as with the quality of the policy itself. Second. Regulation has become much more prescriptive and less proscriptive.

As of their final recommendations:

– Severing the link between gray capital and corporate ownership
First action is needed to prevent investment institutions from draining companies of capital. […] One way to sever the link is to grant companies greater freedom to discriminate between owners by expanding the usage of dual class stock. […] Both google and Facebook have dual share structures, something that arguably helped to maintain a culture of innovation in those firms. A few days after Facebook’s initial public offering, founder mark Zuckerberg owned 18 percent of Facebook, but controlled 57 percent of the share-votes. The reason is obvious: maintaining entrepreneurial spirit. [Page 233]

– Boosting the contestability of markets
Greater competition should also help to speed up the exit of low productivity firms. […] In the US, for instance, there is greater variation in pay between firms than within firms. […] Related to that, market regulation has generally skewed the market, favoring older firms over new, leading to more consolidation of markets and higher entry barriers. [Page 235]

Take the example of Europe’s digital economy. Its size, growth, and contribution to GDP have been far less impressive than in other comparable economic regions like the United States. While Europe has a problem with fragmented markets in the field of digital services, a far bigger hindrance to growth is the highly regulated services sector that inhibits the diffusion of new digital technology from rippling through economies. […However ] past lessons of dynamics competition, especially in sectors where technology has driven competition, suggest that temporarily high market shares for some companies are beneficial. [Page 236] [Again a complex situation]

– Nurturing a culture of dissent and eccentricity
There is a final point to be made. Because it is more about culture than policy, it does not lend itself to a program of reforms. It concerns eccentricity, or the leeway given to these innovators and entrepreneurs who do not conform to the norm. And it is about dissent, and the freedom people enjoy to articulate and pursue their ideas. A culture of dissent and eccentricity is of great importance to innovation – and not just to invention or technology creation. For economies to be innovative, there has to be tolerance of the unknown and acceptance of experimentation. [Page 237]

After this too long presentation, I must end with two quotes, one famous and the other almost unknown. If you have arrived here, you have the right to ask me who are the authors…

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

“Entrepreneurs are the revolutionaries of our time. Democracy works best when there is this kind of turbulence in the society, when those not well-off have a chance to climb the economic ladder by using brains, energy and skills to create new markets or serve existing markets better then their old competitors”