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Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 6: founder uniqueness, technology singularity

Monday, March 17th, 2014 Comment »

Thiel’s concludes his Class Notes Essays (CS183 —Stanford, Spring 2012) with philosophical considerations about the uniqueness of founders (class 18) and the singularity of technology (class 19). Founders are a topic I regularly covered, for example with European Founders at Work or Founders at Work.

Again Thiel presents unusual ideas about founders. He sees them as a combination of extreme outsiders and extreme insiders.
Thiel-extreme-in-out
which he reinforces with this virtuous/vicious circle:
Thiel-extreme-in-out-circle

If this is not clear, two examples may help:
– “All [these] questions apply to Gates. Was it nature or nurture? He was a Harvard insider but a dropout outsider. He wore big glasses. Did he become a nerd unwillingly? Did he prosper by accentuating his nerdiness? It’s hard to tell.”
– “And then there’s the Steve Jobs version. […] He had all the classic extreme outsider and extreme insider traits. He dropped out of college. He was eccentric and had all these crazy diets. He started out phreaking phones with Steve Wozniak. He took LSD.”

Thiel is convincing when he explains that a start-up is not a democracy. Founders are Kings, and Thiel may have followed René Girard at Stanford since he then develops a theory of scapegoats. The god may become a victim.
Thiel-monarchy

Thiel is a little short about the dual-founder situation: “The dual founder thing is worth mentioning. Co-founders seem to get in a lot less trouble than more unbalanced single founders. Think Hewlett and Packard, Moore and Noyce, and Page and Brin. There are all sorts of theoretical benefits to having multiple founders such as more brainstorming power, collaboration, etc. But the really decisive difference between one founder and more is that with multiple founders, it’s much harder to isolate a scapegoat. Is it Larry Page? Or is it Sergey Brin? It is very hard for a mob-like board to unite against multiple people—and remember, the scapegoat must be singular. The more singular and isolated the founder, the more dangerous the scapegoating phenomenon. For the skeptic who is inclined to spot fiction masquerading as truth, this raises some interesting questions. Are Page and Brin, for instance, really as equal as advertised? Or was it a strategy for safety? We’ll leave those questions unanswered and hardly asked.”

Thiel-dual-founders

Thiel’s vision (as well as the visions of his guests – I mixed them here) of technology was mentioned in my previous post. Again quite fascinating. “People do tend have some view of the future. They usually project relative stagnation. People tend to believe that, not only will most things not change, but what will change won’t change very quickly.” But “there’s a compelling case that we’ll very likely see extraordinary or accelerated progress in the decades ahead.”

One guest: “My take is that innovation comes from two places: top-down and bottom-up. There’s a huge DIY community. These hobbyists are working in labs they set up in their kitchens and basements. On the other end of the spectrum you have DARPA spending tons of money. Scientists are talking to each other from different countries, collaborating. All this interconnectedness matters. All these interactions in the aggregate will bring the change.

Another guest: “I disagree. There are a very few visionary people who can make a real difference at the formative early stage. This is why mainstream opinion formers are absolutely pivotal. Perhaps no other subset of people could do more to further radical technology. By overpowering public reluctance and influencing the discourse, these people can enable everyone else to build the technology. If we change public thinking, the big benefactors can drive the gears.”

The third guest: “I do not think that progress will come from the top-down or from the bottom-up, really. Individual benefactors who focus on one thing, like Paul Allen, are certainly doing good. But they’re not really pushing on future; they’re more pushing on individual thread in homes that it will make the future come faster. The sense is that these people are not really coordinating with each other. Historically, the big top-down approaches haven’t worked. And the bottom-up approach doesn’t usually work either. It’s the middle that makes change—tribes like the Quakers, the Founding Fathers, or the Royal Society. These effective groups were dozens or small hundreds in size. It’s almost never lone geniuses working solo. And it’s almost never defense departments or big institutions. You need dependency and trust. Those traits cannot exist in one person or amongst thousands.”

Peter Thiel: “That’s three different opinions on who makes the future: a top-down bottom-up combo, social opinion molders, and tribes.”

To be honest, I was more convinced with his analysis of founders than of technologies. His conclusion is worth reading as inspiration: “This course has largely been about going from 0 to 1. We’ve talked a lot about how to create new technology, and how radically better technology may build toward singularity. But we can apply the 0 to 1 framework more broadly than that. There is something importantly singular about each new thing in the world. There is a mini singularity whenever you start a company or make a key life decision. In a very real sense, the life of every person is a singularity. The obvious question is what you should do with your singularity. The obvious answer, unfortunately, has been to follow the well-trodden path. You are constantly encouraged to play it safe and be conventional. The future, we are told, is just probabilities and statistics. You are a statistic. But the obvious answer is wrong. That is selling yourself short. Statistical processes, the law of large numbers, and globalization—these things are timeless, probabilistic, and maybe random. But, like technology, your life is a story of one-time events. By their nature, singular events are hard to teach or generalize about. But the big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them. There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future—if you don’t take charge of your life—there is the sense that no one else will. So go find a frontier and go for it. Choose to do something important and different. Don’t be deterred by notions of luck, impossibility, or futility. Use your power to shape your own life and go and do new things.”

Reading these last lines, I remembered the conclusion of my book: “And I suddenly remembered an essay by Wilhelm Reich, the great psychoanalyst, which he wrote in 1945: “Listen, Little Man”. A small essay by the number of pages, a big one in the impact it creates. “I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”.

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 5: a vision of the future of technology

Saturday, March 15th, 2014 Comment »

I am still not sure how Thiel’s class notes on start-ups will finish, but they are more and more fascinating, class after class. At least his vision of this world is.

Class 14 is about cleantech and energy. “Alternative energy and cleantech have attracted an enormous amount of investment capital and attention over the last decade. Almost nothing has worked as well as people expected. The cleantech experience can thus be quite instructive. […] To think about the future of energy, we can use the [another] matrix. The quadrants shake out like this:
Determinate, optimistic: one specific type of energy is best, and needs to be developed
Determinate, pessimistic: no technology or energy source is considerably better. You have what you have. So ration and conserve it.
Indeterminate, optimistic: there are better and cheaper energy sources. We just don’t know what they are. So do a whole portfolio of things.
Indeterminate, pessimistic: we don’t know what the right energy sources are, but they’re likely going to be worse and expensive. Take a portfolio approach.”

Both for energy and transportation, Thiel’s fills his quadrants with interesting examples:
Thiel-World3

and he adds: “Petroleum has dominated transportation. Coal has dominated in power generation. […] Typically a single source dominates at any given time. There is a logical reason for this. It doesn’t make sense that the universe would be ordered such that many different kinds of energy sources are almost exactly equal. Solar is very different from wind, which is very different from nuclear. It would be extremely odd if pricing and effectiveness across all these varied sources turned out to be virtually identical. So there’s a decent ex ante reason why we should expect to see one dominant source. This can be framed as a power law function. Energy sources are probably not normally distributed in cost or effectiveness. There is probably one that is dramatically better than all others.”

But the analysis explaining the cleantech bubble were far from clear. “One problem was that people were ambiguous on what was scarce or problematic. Was there resource scarcity? Or were the main problems environmental?” […] “To have a successful startup, you must have good answers—or at least a good plan for getting those answers.” Answers to many issues such as
– the market
– the secrets
– the team and its culture
– the funding
and unfortunately many mistakes were made.

Regarding the market, there was the issue of both explaining how to become a leader of one segment (PV, wind,…) and why a segment was better. Regarding the secret: “If you want to start a company, you should have some important secret. But in practice, most wind, solar, and cleantech ventures relied on incremental improvements.” Even worse, “most cleantech companies in the last decade have had shockingly non-technical teams and cultures. Culture defaulted toward zero-sum competition. Savvy observers would have seen the trouble coming when cleantech people started wearing suits and ties. Tech people and computer people wear t-shirts and jeans. Cleantech people, by contrast, looked like salesmen. And indeed they were. This is not a trivial point. If you’re dealing in something that’s incremental and of questionable durability, you actually have to be a really good salesman to convince people that it’s dramatically better.” Finally “a good, broad rule of thumb is to never invest in companies who are looking for less than $1 million or more than $1 billion. If companies can do everything they want for less than a million dollars, things may be a little too easy. There may be nothing that is very hard to build, and it’s just a timing game. On the other extreme, if a company needs more than a billion dollars to be successful, it has to become so big that the story starts to become implausible.”

If Thiel were to bet on soemthing, it would apparently be Thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Class 15 is about other future bets.

Thiel-World4a
Thiel-World4b

Thiel is a strong believer in contrarian (and sometimes huge) bets. He is interested in or at least puzzled by transportation, robotics, weather and energy storage. And his way of choosing is to look at what did not work (yet) in the past: “Various VC firms in Silicon Valley warned expressed concern about [investing in unique technologies]. They warned us that investing in SpaceX was risky and maybe even crazy. And this wasn’t even at the very early stage. […] (Danielle Fong:) People like to act like they like being disruptive and taking risks. But usually it’s just an act. They don’t mean it. Or if they do, they don’t necessarily have the clout within the partnership to make it happen. (Peter Thiel:) It is very hard hard for investors to invest in things that are unique. The psychological struggle is hard to overstate. People gravitate to the modern portfolio approach. The narrative that people tell is that their portfolio will be a portfolio of different things. But that seems odd. Things that are truly different are hard to evaluate. […] The upside to doing something that you’re unfamiliar with, like rockets, is that it’s likely that no one else is familiar with it, either. The competitive bar is lowered. You can focus on learning and substantive things over process, which is perhaps better than competing against experts.”

Class 16 is about maybe the highest of all bets: life and death.

I have not so far mentioned the sentence which comes at the top of each series of class notes: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

The problem.

“Like death itself, modern drug discovery is probably too much a matter of luck. Scientists start with something like 10,000 different compounds. After an extensive screening process, those 10,000 are reduced to maybe 5 that might make it to Phase 3 testing. Maybe 1 makes it through testing and is approved by the FDA. It is an extremely long and fairly random process. This is why starting a biotech company is usually a brutal undertaking. Most last 10 to 15 years. There’s little to no control along the way. What looks promising may not work. There’s no iteration or sense of progress. There is just a binary outcome at end of a largely stochastic process. You can work hard for 10 years and still not know if you’ve just wasted your time.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that all the luck-driven, stats-driven processes that have dominated people’s thinking have worked pretty well over the last few decades. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that indeterminacy is sound practice. Its costs may be rising quickly. Perhaps we’ve found everything that is easy to find. If so, it will be hard to improve armed with nothing but further random processes. This is reflected in escalating development costs. It cost $100 million to develop a new drug in 1975. Today it costs $1.3 billion. Probably all life sciences investment funds have lost money. Biotech investment has been roughly as bad a cleantech.”

The perspectives.

“Drug discovery is fundamentally a search problem. The search space is extremely big. There are lots of possible compounds. An important question is thus whether we can use computer technology to reduce scope of luck. Can Computer Science make biotech more determinative?”

“These are big secrets that play out over long time horizons, not web apps that have a 6-week window to take over the world.”

“The sequencing of the genome is like the first packets being sent over ARPANET. It’s a proof of concept. This technology is happening, but it isn’t yet compelling. So there is a huge market if one can make something compelling enough for people to actually go and get a genome sequenced. It’s like e-mail or word processing. Initially these things were uncomfortable. But when they become demonstrably useful, people leave their comfort zones and adopt them.”

“Biotech got quite a burst in late 70s early 80s, with new recombinant DNA and molecular biology techniques. Genentech led the way from the late 70s to the early 80s. Nine of the 10 biggest American biotech companies were founded during this really short time. Their technology came out some 7-8 years later. And that was the window; not very many integrated biotech companies have emerged since then. There was a certain amount of stuff to find. People found it. And before Genentech, the paradigm was pharma, not biotech. That window (becoming an integrated pharmaceutical company) had been closed for about 30 years before Genentech. So the bet is that while the traditional biotech window may be closed, the comp bio window is just opening.”

“There’s really no rush to spill the secret plans. This space is very much unlike fast-moving consumer Internet startups. Here, if you have something unique, you should nurse it.”

“Slow iteration is not law of nature. Pharma and biotech usually move very slowly, but both have moved pretty fast at times. From 1920-1923 Insulin moved at the speed of software. Today, platforms like Heroku have greatly reduced iteration times. The question is whether we can do that for biotech. Nowhere is it written in stone that you can’t go from conception to market in 18 months. That depends very much on what you’re doing. Genentech was founded the same year as Apple was, in 1976. Building a platform and building infrastructure take time. There can be lots of overhead. Ancillary things can take longer than a single product lifecycle to accumulate. [… the] VC is broken with respect biotech. Biotech VCs have all lost money. They usually have time horizons that are far too short. VCs that say they want biotech tend to really want products brought to market extremely quickly. “Integrated drug platform” is an ominous phrase for VCs. More biotech VCs are focused on globalization than on real technical innovation. VCs typically found a company around a single compound and then pour a bunch of money into it to push it through the capital-intensive trial process. Most VCs not interested in multi-compound companies doing serious pre-clinical research.”

And as a conclusion of class 16, “Startups are always hard at the start. There are futons and ironing boards in the office. You have to rush to clean up for meetings. But maybe the hardest thing is just to get your foundation right and make sure you plan to build something valuable. You don’t have to do a science fair project at the start. You just have to do your analytical homework and make sure what you’re doing is valid. You have to give yourself the best chance of success as things unfold in the future.”

Class 17 is about the brain, artificial intelligence, maybe the last frontier in technology, certainly going further than the previous topics addressed here.

thiel-world5

Not much more to add except maybe the short description of the approach by 3 start-ups:
Vicarious is trying to build AI by develop algorithms that use the underlying principles of the human brain. They believe that higher-level concepts are derived from grounded experiences in the world, and thus creating AI requires first solving a human sensory modality.
Prior Knowledge (acquired by Salesforce since Thiel’s class) is taking a different approach to building AI. Their goal is less to emulate brain function and more to try to come up with different ways to process large amounts of data. They apply a variety of Bayesian probabilistic techniques to identifying patterns and ascertaining causation in large data sets. In a sense, it’s the opposite of simulating human brains.
– The big insight at Palantir (…) isn’t regression analysis, where you look at what was done in the past to try to predict what’s going to be next. A better approach is more game theoretic. Palantir’s framework is not fundamentally about AI, but rather about intelligence augmentation.

And one more comment: “For the most part, academics aren’t (working on strong AI or crazy things) because their incentive structure is so weird. They have perverse incentive to make only marginally better things. And most private companies aren’t working on it because they’re trying to make money now.(…) Bold claims also require extraordinary proof. If you’re pitching a time machine, you’d need to be able to show incremental progress before anyone would believe you. Maybe your investor demo is sending a shoe back in time. That’d be great. You can show that prototype, and explain to investors what will be required to make the machine work on more valuable problems. It’s worth noting that, if you’re pitching a revolutionary technology as opposed to an incremental one, it is much better to find VCs who can think through the tech themselves. When Trilogy was trying to raise their first round, the VCs had professors evaluate their approach to the configurator problem. Trilogy’s strategy was too different from the status quo, and the professors told the VCs that it would never work. That was an expensive mistake for those VCs. When there’s contrarian knowledge involved, you want investors who have the ability to think through these things on their own.”

End of part 5!

When Peter Thiel & Friends talk about Start-ups – part 3: company culture, founders, team, investors

Friday, March 7th, 2014 Comment »

Part 3 of my series of comments about Thiel’s class notes at Stanford mainly cover his Class 5-8. But first I should add that Thiel invited a “honor class” of innovators during his 19 classes. Quite fascinating!

Thiel-Friends-CS1st row: Stephen Cohen, co-founder and Executive VP of Palantir Technologies,
Max Levchin, co-founder PayPal and Slide,
Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital and former CFO of PayPal,
2nd row: Paul Graham, partner and co-founder of Y Combinator,
Bruce Gibney, partner at Founders Fund,
Marc Andreessen, general partner Andreessen Horowitz,
3rd row: Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn,
Danielle Fong, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy,
Jon Hollander, Business Development at RoboteX,
4th row: Greg Smirin, COO of The Climate Corporation,
Scott Nolan, Principal at Founders Fund and former aerospace engineer at SpaceX,
(Elon Musk was going to come, but he was busy launching rockets),
5th row: Brian Slingerland. Co-Founder, President & COO at Stem CentRx,
Balaji S. Srinivasan, CTO of Counsyl,
Brian Frezza, Co-founder, Emerald Therapeutics,
6th row: D. Scott Brown, co-founder of Vicarious,
Eric Jonas, CEO of Prior Knowledge,
Bob McGrew, Director of Eng, Palantir,
7th row: Sonia Arrison, Associate Founder of Singularity University,
Michael Vassar, the Singularity Institute for the study of Artificial Intelligence (SIAI),
Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation.

Thiel covered how to build a company from the ideas and vision of founders, through hiring and sometimes funding from investors. But he began with a critical though fuzzy concept, the company culture: “A robust company culture is one in which people have something in common that distinguishes them quite sharply from rest of the world.”

He mentions also some important dimensions of the culture:
– Consultant-nihilism or Cultish Dogmatism: “You want to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. To the extent you gravitate towards an extreme, you probably want to be closer to being a cult than being an army of consultants.” which could be why Thiel said earlier,
pre-money valuation = ($1M*n_engineers) – ($500k*n_MBAs).
– To Fight or Not To Fight (i.e. Nerds or Athletes or again Zero-sum and Non zero-sum). “So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes. Neither extreme is optimal. Consider a 2 x 2 matrix. On the y-axis you have zero-sum people and non zero-sum people. On the x-axis you have warring, competitive environments and then you have peaceful, monopoly/capitalist environments. The optimal spot on the matrix is monopoly capitalism with some tailored combination of zero-sum and non zero-sum oriented people. You want to pick an environment where you don’t have to fight. But you should bring along some good fighters to protect your non zero-sum people and mission, just in case.”
I was just told this is crytic… I agree… another reason to read Thiel directly!

Foundings are obviously temporal. But how long they last can be a hard question. The typical narrative contemplates a founding, first hires, and a first capital raise. But there’s an argument that the founding lasts a lot longer than that. The idea of going from 0 to 1—the idea of technology—parallels founding moments. The 1 to n of globalization, by contrast, parallels post-founding execution. It may be that the founding lasts so long as a company’s technical innovation continues. Founders should arguably stay in charge as long as the paradigm remains 0 to 1. Once the paradigm shifts to 1 to n, the founding is over. At that point, executives should execute.”

Max Levchin: The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible. There are a few reasons for this. The most salient is that, as a startup, you’re underfunded and undermanned. It’s a big disadvantage; not only are you probably getting into trouble, but you don’t even know what trouble that may be. Speed is your only weapon. All you have is speed. […] How to hire? A specific application of this is the anti-fashion bias. You shouldn’t judge people by the stylishness of their clothing; quality people often do not have quality clothing. Which leads to a general observation: Great engineers don’t wear designer jeans. So if you’re interviewing an engineer, look at his jeans. There are always exceptions, of course. But it’s a surprisingly good heuristic. […] PayPal also had a hard time hiring women. An outsider might think that the PayPal guys bought into the stereotype that women don’t do CS. But that’s not true at all. The truth is that PayPal had trouble hiring women because PayPal was just a bunch of nerds! They never talked to women. So how were they supposed to interact with and hire them?

“No CEO should be paid more than $150k per year” (in Silicon Valley)
“Another important insight is that people must either be fully in the company or not in it at all.”

Dilution and funding
Building a valuable company is a long journey. A key question to keep your eye on as a founder is dilution. The Google founders had 15.6% of the company at IPO. Steve Jobs had 13.5% of Apple when it went public in the early ‘80s. Mark Pincus had 16% of Zynga at IPO. If you have north of 10% after many rounds of financing, that’s generally a very good outcome. Dilution is relentless. The alternative is that you don’t let anyone else in. It’s worth remembering that many successful businesses are built like this. Craigslist would be worth something like $5bn if it were run more like a company than a commune. GoDaddy never took funding. Trilogy in the late 1990s had no outside investors. Microsoft very nearly joined this club; it took one small venture investment just before its IPO. When Microsoft went public, Bill Gates still owned an astounding 49.2% of the company. So the question to think about with VCs isn’t all that different than questions about co-founders and employees. Who are the best people? Who do you want—or need—on board?

The VC model in a nutshell: a power law. “To a first approximation, a VC portfolio will only make money if your best company investment ends up being worth more than your whole fund. (And the investment in the second best company is about as valuable as number three through the rest.)”

I have not yet read the following classes…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 2: value creation

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 Comment »

As promised, here are additional comments from my reading Peter Thiel’s class notes on start-ups at Stanford University (after the general ones in part 1 about innovation). And today, it’s about value creation. When I teach valuation techniques at EPFL, I provide similar information: value creation is future cash flows adjusted for time value (check Wikipedia for valuation using DCF). The difficulty with DCF is that in the case of start-ups most of the value appears in the very long term and given the uncertainty of start-up projection revenues, it makes DCF nearly useless… This is why, for start-ups, it is often easier to use techniques based on multiples & comparables (again check Wikipedia for valuation using multiples.)

Thiel enlighted me here by providing a very interesting explanation of why DCF still makes sense for start-ups. First he defines “Great Technology Companies”: “Great companies do three things. First, they create value. Second, they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. Finally, they capture at least some of the value they create.” Surprisingly (for me), the second thing is the most important: they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. He then introduces DCF with a growth rate:
dcf-valuation
and then he adds: “Tech and other high growth companies are different. At first, most of them lose money. When the growth rate—g, in our calculations above—is higher than the discount rate r, a lot of the value in tech businesses exists pretty far in the future. Indeed, a typical model could see 2/3 of the value being created in years 10 through 15. This is counterintuitive. Most people—even people working in startups today—think in Old Economy mode where you have to create value right off the bat. The focus, particularly in companies with exploding growth, is on next months, quarters, or, less frequently, years. That is too short a timeline. Old Economy mode works in the Old Economy. It does not work for thinking about tech and high growth businesses. Yet startup culture today pointedly ignores, and even resists, 10-15 year thinking.”

I will not add much more here but just mention that Thiel has in this Class 3 & 4 very interesting arguments about why competition may not be that good and monopoly not that bad for the economy and individuals… “Whether competition is good or bad is an interesting (and usually overlooked) question. Most people just assume it’s good. The standard economic narrative, with all its focus on perfect competition, identifies competition as the source of all progress. If competition is good, then the default view on its opposite—monopoly—is that it must be very bad. But exactly why monopoly is bad is hard to tease out. It’s usually just accepted as a given. But it’s probably worth questioning in greater detail.”

He does the analysis not only for companies but also for individuals with a moving section about fierce competition at Princeton, Yale or Harvard with an interesting comparison with Stanford: “Of all the top universities, Stanford is the farthest from perfect competition. Maybe that’s by chance or maybe it’s by design. The geography probably helps, since the east coast doesn’t have to pay much attention to us, and vice versa. But there’s a sense of structured heterogeneity too; there’s a strong engineering piece, the strong humanities piece, and even the best athletics piece in the country. To the extent there’s competition, it’s often a joke. Consider the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. That’s pretty asymmetric too. In football, Stanford usually wins. But take something that really matters, like starting tech companies. If you ask the question, “Graduates from which of the two universities started the most valuable company?” for each of the last 40 years, Stanford probably wins by something like 40 to zero. It’s monopoly capitalism, far away from a world of perfect competition.”

zerotoone

He finishes with an analysis consistent with his first class on zero to one: “If globalization had to have a tagline, it might be that “the world is flat.” Technology, by contrast, starts from the idea that the world is Mount Everest. If the world is truly flat, it’s just crazed competition. (…) And yet, the single business idea that you hear most often is: the bigger the market, the better. That is utterly, totally wrong. The restaurant business is a huge market. It is also not a very good way to make money.
(…)
Where does venture capital fit in? VCs tend not to have a very large pool of business. Rather, they rely on very discreet networks of people. That is, they have access to a unique network of entrepreneurs. So VC is anti-commoditized. That kind of dynamic arguably characterizes all great tech companies, i.e. last mover monopolies. Last movers build non-commoditized businesses. They are relationship-driven. They create value. They last. And they make money.”

More to come…

Myths and Realities of Innovation in Switzerland

Friday, November 22nd, 2013 6 Comments »

Xavier Comtesse has just published an excellent report The Health of the Swiss innovation – Ideas for its strengthening, which he gave a summary on his blog, Innovation in Switzerland: it is primarily the domain of Health! This is a very interesting report and it is challenging for me because it “proves” that Silicon Valley is not and should not be a model for innovation in Switzerland: in his introduction he states that “the success of Switzerland in this area is still largely and for many people a mystery, especially since the only model actually known and studied is that of Silicon Valley and it does not fit, as we shall demonstrate, that of Switzerland. Although this model has made California the envy of all, it seems to have finally not been fully copied by anyone.”

cover_dp_innovation_f_400-282x400

But as Comtesse is a bit “Contrarian” (as I am also – my friends often accuse me of debating with myself), he cannot be satisfied with the health of the Swiss innovation. “As soon as the lines of the Swiss model will emerge, it will also show its weaknesses. This will allow us to propose changes to the current situation for a successful future evolution.”

He begins by showing the strength of R&D from the private sector – 75 % of the 16 billion spent in Switzerland. He adds that Roche and Novartis in pharma represent a large portion of this amount (approximately 30% of all R&D spent in Switzerland) and they invest more abroad.

A first point of divergence, R&D is not innovation … In simple terms, innovation is the creation, closer to entrepreneurship than to R&D. Apple has always innovated and much better than other companies, but its R&D ratio is very low.

swiss-r6d-spending
(Click on image to enlarge)

Then he compares Silicon Valley and Switzerland: “Silicon Valley massively encourages the emergence of new actors (start-ups) in the field of information technology and communication (ICT) while the Swiss model promotes rather large incumbents in the field of health.” [Page 20] and even [page 25] “Silicon Valley has deliberately chosen the new technologies of information and telecommunications (including the Internet) as the innovative axis of its development.” He concludes with: “You could say that Switzerland is for health what Silicon Valley is for ICT.”

Second point of divergence: Silicon Valley is not the Mecca of ICT, but that of high-tech entrepreneurship. Genentech and Chiron were the leaders of biotech before being bought by Roche and Novartis respectively. Intuitive Surgical is a leading medical technology company, Tesla Motors could become a major player in the automotive industry and there are hundreds of other start-ups in the fields of energy (massively financed by funds like Khosla or KP), in clean technology and health. Furthermore Silicon Valley has also large established companies such as HP and Intel which are no longer startups.

Comtesse is convinced that Switzerland is less fragile. “As amazing as it may seem, the Swiss model is more robust and efficient over the long term than Silicon Valley because it is less dependent on global rivalries and Silicon Valley may be under threat from Korea, China or any other part of the world. Switzerland is less so because the entry ticket in the field of health, namely the huge investment to develop higher education, university hospitals, research centers, the creation of companies producing blockbusters (products reaching the billion in sales) is so high that few regions can compete in this field.”

Third point of disagreement: I do see how Korea (through Samsung and LG) has indeed become a threat to Silicon Valley but I cannot see why it could not be in the field of health. Investments in electronics and telephony were also huge. Also, the higher and higher reluctance of emerging countries with intellectual property protection (patents) on drugs and the emergence of generics seem to me equally destabilizing.

Finally Comtesse also describes the weaknesses of innovation in Switzerland: “But the question that no politician really wanted to answer was the lack of good projects. If this question is asked the answer is obviously not the creation of science and technology parks, or even the transfer of technology, let alone coaching. It is the creativity that is lacking. How to make Switzerland and especially young people from higher education to be more creative?” Neil Rimer, from Index Ventures, said similar things: “There is innovation in Switzerland, but few entrepreneurs are ready to conquer the world” and “To attract [ … ] you need a critical mass of start-ups so that there are other options available in case of failure. […] Switzerland and its cantons seek to attract traditional companies or the administrative centers of large corporations. […] My biggest wish would be that the authorities encourage the creation of jobs creation in engineering, design, marketing and management. This is how we will attract a critical mass of professionals who create and grow start-ups in Switzerland.” (See L’innovation en Suisse d’après Neil Rimer).

There is a slight difference. Neil Rimer is not talking about good or bad projects, but about ambition. He even said on this blog a few months ago : “I continue to be amazed to hear that there is not enough support in Switzerland for ambitious projects. We and other European investors are perpetually in search of global projects from Switzerland. In my opinion, there are too many projects lacking ambition artificially supported by institutions – who also lack ambition- which gives the impression that there is enough entrepreneurial activity in Switzerland.”

Comtesse then returns to the role of government by distinguishing incremental innovation and disruptive innovation . “Indeed what matters to a nation is its overall innovation capacity including disruptive innovation. But if the State does not take all the risks, then nobody will do it. That is why it is urgent to give further instructions or guidelines to the CTI. Financing incremental innovation should not be its task, or only marginally.” [Page 27] “The Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) tends to support incremental innovation projects, which are less risky and easier to implement. These should be the prerogative of private companies and therefore should not benefit from government support. On the contrary, disruptive innovation, similarly to basic research, should be largely the responsibility of government.” [Page 30] “So on the one hand our innovation system is supported by large companies, and on the other hand by innovative SMEs as well, but those do not reach a sufficient critical mass to make often a difference. The idea would be not to finance individual projects as does CTI in general, but multi-partners programs led by one of the major Swiss companies.” [Page 28] “This approach does not preclude the emergence of new start-ups but these would be placed under the protective wing of medium and large Swiss companies. This would avoid start-ups to be immediately sold to the Americans (a phenomenon called “born to be sold”) or and help to counter the fact that they are never able to grow. It should be remembered that over 80 % of our start-ups do not perish in 7 years, while the “normal” rate is 50 % (one might well say that “never die” is another Swiss phenomenon).” [ Page 31]

I agree with him on the analysis, less on the implemention solutions. I find interesting the idea of giving priority of government support to disruptive innovation. It reminds me of the excellent analysis of Mariana Mazzucato about the Entrepreneurial State. I remain much more cautious about the idea of ​​a consortium of major companies to develop and protect our start-ups. I understand the desire to reduce the risk of the sale, but I do not think the concept is realistic. Which real entrepreneur wants to be protected or controlled by a big even if nice brother… I also have some doubts about the ability and entrepreneurial desire of large corporations.

In a little artificial manner, Comtesse adds the idea of ​​a tax incentives for innovation companies. “The Swiss tax system does not explicitly provide incentives for companies that conduct R&D. The simplest solution is the tax credit for innovation that would, in various ways, decease the burden of corporate tax based on their spending in innovation. Many large countries (the United States, Canada, England, Spain and France) have already implemented such an instrument. It is not, however, about encouraging any sector by this tool but rather to create an emulation for long-term innovation in the country. This device must provide to companies, especially SMEs, more freedom of maneuver to face the innovation process.” (See again Comtesse’s blog).

Here I can speak of complete disagreement. You can read again my analysis of Mazzucato denouncing tax optimization in this area. I never believed in tax incentives and I could be wrong. I understand the greater effectiveness of the approach, but I believe there are more perverse effects than real positive ones. Just look at the plight of the American Taxation system of the large technology companies.

Despite my criticism, this is an excellent report. Like all Contrarians, I focus more on disagreements but there are, in this analysis, extremely interesting points about the myths and realities of innovation in Switzerland. A short reminder as a way to end this post: Comtesse published a few months ago a Prezi presentation on the same topic, and you can read my comments about the Swiss model innovation : is it the best?

France: a New Deal for Innovation?

Thursday, November 7th, 2013 Comment »

It can be said: France is trying hard to change its innovation culture. After many months of thinking (I was part of an expert group, the Beylat-Tambourin mission), French Minister for Innovation and the Digital Economy, Fleur Pellerin announced a New Deal for Innovation. Some will smile, another state decision! But if you read my posts about Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State, you will understand my interest.

Fleur Pellerin, à Paris le 30 octobre 2011

In a nutshell, Fleur Pellerin and her team are focusing on:
additional resouces: money is the fuel of innovation, far from sufficient, but critical. A new €500M fund, Large Ventures as well as €30k grants for new entrepreurs (about €10M per year). It’s important to cover seed funding as well as later stage.
attracting talent with a “New Argonaut” policy. there are 50’000 French people in Silicon Valley, they have experience to bring.

Exactly what Paul Graham says in How to be Silicon Valley: you need nerds and rich people. And it is not just the state. Xavier Niel, the most succesful French entrepreneur in recent years is launching 1000start-ups, a huge and ambitious initiative in the heart of Paris with a lot of money…

Yes, France is trying hard!

1000start-ups

You can have a look at the following references, but you need to read French!

L’innovation, c’est un projet de société” in La Tribune
Nous avons une vision trop idéologique de l’entreprise” in Le Monde
Une nouvelle donne pour l’innovation (A New Deal for Innovation) with a 25-page pdf (in French)

Nouvelle-donne-innovation-dossier-presse-France-2013

The book that launched the Lean Startup revolution

Monday, November 4th, 2013 Comment »

There is nothing really new with Steve Blank’s 5th edition of The Four Steps to the Epiphany. But first I lost my first copy (who has it?) and second I thought I should read again this bible for entrepreneurs. So why not a second look.

Four-Steps-to-the-Epiphany-5th-edition

Ten years after the 1st edition, Blank is as right as ever. His Customer Development model is a great lesson about the dangers of business plans and of product development without some validation form early customers and the Market. You can read my post from 2011, Steve Blank and Customer Development. You should, as I will not say again what I said then. I do not have much to change. Let me just say again a few key elements:

– “The good new is these customer and market milestones can be defined and measured. The bad news is achieving these milestones is an art. It’s an art embodied in the passion and vision of the individuals who work to make their vision a reality. That’s what makes startups exciting.” [Page 22 and see note (1) below]
– Start-ups are not early versions of established companies. they have nothing to do with them in fact. “Startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.” As a consequence, people running start-ups (product, sales, marketing, management) need to understand the start-up culture and dynamics. “Traditional functional organizations [Sales, Marketing and Business Development] and the job titles and the job descriptions that work in a large company are worse than useless in a startup. They are dangerous and dysfunctional in the first phases of a startup.”[Appendix A, “The Death of the Departments”.]

Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany is not easy to read but it is a must have and a must read for any entrepreneur!

(1) In another interview Balnk explained: Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, Business Model Design) 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.” In the same way that word processing has never replaced a writer, a thoughtful innovation process will not guarantee success. Blank added that ” until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all.”

The Entrepreneurial State (part5): conclusion on a great book.

Saturday, October 19th, 2013 2 Comments »

Again I have been very much impressed by the Entrepreneurial State but I also have some major doubts and even some disagreements. Maybe I have been brain-washed in the last 20 years of my life but my experience in Silicon Valley and venture capital and also my less than satisfying experience with planned innovation by the State convince me that entrepreneurship is crucial and maybe more important than the State role in the innovation part (not the research or even the R&D).

Now I fully agree that seed funding by the State of innovation through research and the taxes to be paid by companies are essential. I also agree that VC is less and less risk taking and that corporate R&D is just a D and the R has disappeared both in IT and pharma.

But let me finish with my notes on this excellent book. As a reminder, part 1 was about the innovation crisis, part 2 was about the respective role of the public and private sector in R&D and innovation, part 3 about the Apple iPhone, part 4 about the green revolution and risks and rewards.

9780857282521_hi-res_2

Chapter 9 – Socialization of risks and privatization of rewards.

“Innovation has a tendency of allowing those with high skills to prosper and those with low skills to get left behind.” [See also her comment on the New and Old economy in part 4] “Are these the same type of economic actors who are able to appropriate returns form the innovation process if and when they appear? That is, who takes the risks and who gets the rewards? We argue that it is the collective, cumulative and uncertain characteristics of the innovation process that make this disconnect between risks and rewards possible.” […] “When certain actors are able to position themselves at the point – along the cumulative innovation curve – where the innovative enterprise generates financial returns, that is close to the final product or, in some cases, close to a financial market such as the stock market. These favoured actors then propound ideological arguments, typically with intellectual roots in the efficiency propositions of neoclassical economics (and the related theory of “shareholder value”) that justify the disproportionate shares of the gains from innovation that they have been able to appropriate. [Page 186]

This was long but very true.

Finding a way to realign risk taking with rewards is thus crucial not only for decreasing inequality but also for fostering more innovation. […] Put provocatively, had the State earned back just one percent from the investments it made in the Internet, there would be much more today to invest in green tech. Many argue that it is inappropriate to consider direct returns because the State already earns a return via the tax system. The reality is, however, that the tax system was not conceived to support innovation and the argument ignores the fact that tax avoidance and evasion are common. [Page 187]

Mazzucato suggests 3 concrete proposals:
– A Golden share of IPR and a national “Innovation fund” by extracting a royalty. The government should retain a share of the patents; making sure the owner of patents behaves cooperatively, licensing broadly and fairly after an initial period of protection.
– Income contingent loans and equity. “After Google made billions in profits, shouldn’t a small percentage have gone back to fund the public agency that funded the algorithm?”
– Development banks. IF/when the State institution is run by people who not only believe in the power of the State but also have expertise understanding the innovation process, then the results produce a high reward.
[Well isn’t this at least partially what the US do through the Bayh-Dole Act?]

Conclusion

“Rather than relying on the false dream that “markets” will run the world optimally for us “if we just let them alone” policymakers must better learn how to efficiently use the tools and means to shape and create markets – making things happen that otherwise would not. State can do this by leveraging massive national social network of knowledge and business acumen. The State should “stay foolish” as Jobs said, in its pursuit of technological development. It can do so on a scale and with tools not available to businesses. Apple’s success did not hinge on its ability to create novel technologies, it hinge on its organizational capabilities in integrating marketing and selling those low-hanging technologies.

What is needed today is a “systems” perspective, but one that is more realistic on the actual – rather than mythological – role of the individual actors, and the linkages between actors, within and along the risk landscape. It is, for example, unrealistic to think that the highly capital-intensive and high-risk areas in clean technology will be “led” by venture capital. The history of new sectors teaches us that private investment tend to wait for the early high-risk investments to be made first by the State. Yet the returns from these “revolutionary” state investments have been almost totally privatized. While this is especially obvious in the pharmaceutical industry, it is also true in other high-tech areas, with Apple, which have received major benefits from public funds, both direct and indirect, managing to avoid paying their taxes.

First, it is not enough to talk about the “entrepreneurial” State, one must build it, with long-term strategies. There is nothing in the DNA of the public sector that makes it less innovative than the private sector. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that it is more exciting and fun to work at Goldman Sachs or Google, rather than a State investment bank or a ministry of innovation. The only way to rebalance this problem is to upgrade, not downgrade that status of government. Second a need for a return to cover the losses, beyond the taxes and supply of skilled staff. A direct return. Third, this will have the potential to better inform policies that are directed towards other actors in the “ecosystem” of innovation. (Except the world is global and this may make efforts at the national level not sufficient)

Recommendations
– Reduce State direct transfers such as tax relief,
– Spend money on new technologies and concentrate on firms that can spend on innovation
– Abandon patent box
– Review tax credits so that firms are accountable on innovation, not just R&D
– Reduce enterprise zones
– Return of successful investment in part to government
– Use saved money for massive spending à la Darpa
– Adopt a proactive approach to green technologies
– (Not sure I understood the argument on time investment held before tax exemptions)
– Short-termism is problematic.

The Entrepreneurial State (part 4) – the Green Revolution – Unbalanced Risks and Rewards.

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 Comment »

- Part 1 covers the Innovation dilemmas and crises.
Part 2 deals with the (forgotten or untold) role of the state in stimulating innovation through research.
Part 3 is about the role of the State in the iPhone technologies.
Now chapters 6 to 8:

Chapter 6 – Pushing vs. Nudging the Green Industrial Revolution.

The Green technology is another very interesting situation. “Until wind turbines and solar PV panels can produce energy at a cost equal to or lower than those of fossil fuels, they will likely continue to be marginal technologies that cannot accelerate the transition so badly needed to mitigate climate change.” [Page 114] “Demand-side policies (regulations) are critical but they too often become pleas for change. Supply side policies (energy generation) are important for putting the money were the mouth is.” [Page 155]

Again I have been a cautious observer of green technologies with Germany subsidizing many companies which went bankrupt when China arrived with much cheaper products, with France or Japan claiming nuclear energy as the cleanest… Mazzucato rightly describes “the US with a fund-everything approach, hoping that a breakthrough disruptive energy innovation will sooner or later emerge. This has not been the case because many clean technologies require long-term financial commitment of a kind VCs are not willing or able to undertake”. In my ongoing analysis of recent IPO filings, I noticed 11 companies in green technologies out of the 165 filings I have built since 2002. The oldest one was filed in 2009. These companies had raised more than $2B or about $180M per company. They had more than 5’000 employees in total. It looked to me like a speculative bubble so Mazzucato is right when saying investors are impatient. I am not sure they are shy with their money though.

The US has been busy building on their understanding of what has worked in previous technological revolutions. (…) But while it has been good at connecting and leveraging academia, industry and entrepreneurship in its own push into clean technology, its performance has been uneven. (…) A key reason for uneven US performance has been its heavy reliance on venture capital to “nudge” the development of green technologies. (…) Since some clean technologies are still in early stages, when “Knightian uncertainty” is highest, VC funding is focused on some of the safer bets rather than on the radical innovation that is required to allow the sector to transform society. (Pages 126-127) The conclusion that might follow is that the government should focus exclusively on commissioning the development of the riskiest technologies.

Impatient capital can destroy firms promising to deliver government-financed technology. If VCs aren’t interested in capital-intensive industries, or in building factories, what exactly are they offering in terms of economic development? Their role should be seen for what it is: limited. (Page 131)

The expectation is that the opportunity to conduct high-risk and path-breaking research “will attract many of the US’s best and brightest minds – those of experienced scientists and engineers and especially those of students and young researchers, including persons in the entrepreneurial world.” (Page 134)

The history of US government investment in innovation, from the Internet to nanotech, shows that it has been critical for the government to have a hand in both basic and applied research. NIH is responsible for 75 percent of the most radical new drugs. So the assumption one can leave applied research to the business sector and that this will spur innovation is one with little evidence to support it (and may even deprive some countries of important breakthroughs.) (Page 136)

In reality government and business activities frequently overlap. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs respond to government support in choosing technologies to invest in, but are rarely focused on the long term. In the absence of an appropriate investment model, VC will struggle to provide the “patient capital” required for the full development of radical innovations. It is crucial that finance be patient. (Page 138)

Public finance (such as provided by State development banks) is therefore superior to VC or commercial banking in fostering innovation, because it is committed and patient.

The financial and technological risks of developing modern renewable energy have been too high for VC to support. A key problem is that VCs are looking for returns that are not realistic with capital-intensive technologies. The speculative returns possible in ICT revolutions are not a “norm” to be replicated in all other high-tech industries. (Page 140)

My comments: I agree with the criticism on venture capital. Now the solution introduced of committed and patient development banks is new to me. I understand “patient”, I am less sure about “committed”. Does this mean hands-on, and competent?

But my main concern is again about the difference between inventing and innovating. I need to go back to Apple. According to Wikipedia, a classical definition of Entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”. The term puts emphasis on the risk and effort taken by individuals who both own and manage a business, and on the innovations resulting from their pursuit of economic success.

When Mazzucato describes the Entrepreneurial State, she describes as much an Inventing State as an Innovating State. There is nothing wrong with it. What Apple has been strong at is using inventions and mostly innovations to integrate them in new products. It is why Apple is doing so little R&D. Can the same company do research and explore new green fields and develop new technologies into new products. I am not sure this has been shown by clear evidence. But we should probably ask historians of technology.

There is one invention that shows how difficult the transfer from invention to innovation might be: the transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947. Some of the elements of the invention only were patented (as they had been prior art back in 1925.) By 1951 Bell Labs had licensed (under the government pressure) the technology to more than 40 companies and (then small firms) Texas Instruments and Sony are known for producing early commercial transistors. The inventors received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and one of them moved to Palo Alto and is probably at the origin of Silicon Valley because of his decision. Because of the threat of USSR as an emerging technology power, the US poured a lot of military and space money on the potential of the electronics of the transistor.

The difficulty with nanotechnologies and green technologies is that in the chicken and egg of pull and push, the market needs may be clear, but the technology push looks to me much less so. I am not sure to see where the equivalent of the transistor is for these “promising” fields.

Chapter 7 – Wind and Solar power

This chapter is about the history and current status of these two energies. Wind power players are GE and Vestra from Denmark. There is a long and interesting history. There is a similar long and painful history for solar power. First Solar, Solyndra, SunPower, Evergreen are described in details. Mazzacutto focuses on China’s long-term strategy vs. the more US short term one, as well as Germany’s innovative approach to the market. “Solyndra’s failure highlights the “parasitic” innovation system that the US has created for itself – where financial interests are always and everywhere the judge, jury and executioner of all innovations investment dilemmas.” “Clean technology is already teaching us that changing the world requires coordination and the investment of multiple States, otherwise R&D, support for manufacturing, and support for market creation and function will remain dead ends.” (Page 155)

A framework would include demand-side policies to promote increased consumption as well as supply-side policies that promote manufacture of the technologies with patient capital. (Page 159)

But McKay’s arguments on Sustainable energy – without the hot air makes me cautious…

Mazzacuto still reminds of us of some fundamental elements: coming back on Myth 2 (small is beautiful) “We should not underestimate the role of small firms nor assume that only big firms have the right resources at their disposal. (…) The willingness to disrupt existing market models is needed in order to manifest a real green industrial revolution. (…) It should be a subject of debate whether public support should be handed-off to large firms that could have made their own investments and it is also unclear how they would be willing to shift from the technologies which provide their major sources of revenues.“ As my friend Dominique (:- rightly mentioned as a reaction to a previous post on the topic: “Research funding and how early the research is funded by a company of course depends on its expectations but also on its margins. Back in the seventies large corporations could afford to fund early research because 1) they foresaw stable or growing markets and 2) because their margins were constantly high I believe. Today the speed @ which markets evolve is certainly a deterrent to early stage research by companies…”

Chapter 8 – Risks and rewards: from Rotten Apples to Symbiotic Ecosystems.

Risk taking has been a collective endeavor while the returns have been much less collectively distributed. [Page 165]

The story US taxpayers are told is that economic growth and innovation are outcomes of individual “genius”, Silicon Valley “entrepreneurs”, venture capitalists or “small businesses”, provided regulations are lax (or nonexistent) and taxes low – especially compared to the “Big State” behind much of Europe. [Page 166]

The real Knightian uncertainty that innovation entails, as well as the inevitable sunk costs and capital intensity that it requires, is in fact the reason that the private sector, including venture capital, often shies away from it. It is also the reason why the State is the stakeholder that so often takes the lead, not only to fix markets, but to create them. [Page 167]

Keeping that story untold has allowed Apple to avoid “paying back” share of its profits to the same State. Apple incrementally incorporated in each new generation of products technologies that the state sowed, cultivated and ripened. [Page 168]

Mazzucato has then a very interesting analysis of Old and New Economy Business Model with Old being about stability, generosity, equity and New about volatility, mobility, and low commitments. Jobs are not equal even at Apple, from R&D where products are designed, to China where they are produced, or back to the USA where they are sold by Apple-owned stores; but worse the mobility and globalization has enabled tax evasion and optimization. Apple has a subsidiary in Nevada, Braeburn Capital to avoid income or capital gain taxes. Then is has subsidiaries in Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands and British Virgin Islands for low-tax advantages. Apple IP is owned by Irish subsidiaries, which receive royalties on Apple sales (!) and which ownership is co-owned by another Virgin Islands subsidiary, Baldwin Holdings… GE, Google, Oracle, Amazon and Intel are also famous for tax optimization and tax loss could be $60-80B for the US over a decade. [pages 168-175]

The ultimate purpose of putting tax dollars to use for the development of new technologies is to take on the risk that normally accompanies the pursuit of innovative complex products and systems required to achieve collective goals. [Page 176]

Mazzucato terminates this new chapter with “Where are Today’s Bell Labs?” “One of the reasons unveiled in a [recent MIT] study is the fact that large R&D centers – like bell Labs, Xerox PARC and Alcoa Research Lab – have become a thing of the past in big corporations. Long-term basic and applied research is not part of the strategy of Big Business anymore. What is not clear however is why and how this has changed over time. The wedge between private and social returns (arising from the spillovers of R&D) was just as true in the era of bell Labs as they are today. And what is missing most today is the private component of R&D working in real partnership with the public component, creating what I call later a less symbiotic ecosystem. It is crucial to understand not only how to build an effective innovation “ecosystem”, but also and perhaps especially, how to transform that ecosystem so that it is symbiotic rather than parasitic. [Page 179]

On one side, I see the success of former emerging countries such as Taiwan and Korea, but I was also in the country of the Concorde, TGV, Rafale and Nuclear Power Plants that France has been struggling in selling abroad.

And why is Tesla and Elon Musk such an (early) success if not money is available for disruptive green technologies…

Similarly why was (military and civil) nuclear fission such a success whereas civil nuclear fusion has not given any commercial output 50 years after the military use? I remember reading Richard Feynman about the Manhattan Project and the crazy (entrepreneurial) intensity of the project. Would entrepreneurship be missing at ITER? Innovation and entrepreneurship are very much related and still somehow a mystery.

Planned innovation is a very difficult challenge that Mazzucato is not pushing for and uncertainty remains. Just remember how artificial intelligence has been a disappointment for many decades not to say until now. I’d like to finish here with an interesting article form Newspaper Le Monde:

Innovation is not about planning.
LE MONDE | 30.09.2013 | By Armand Hatchuel.

On September 12, the French, Francois Hollande, and the Minister of productive recovery, Arnaud Montebourg, presented thirty-four “plans for reconquest” from “thermal renovation of buildings” to “the factory of the future” through the “airships for heavy loads”. This announcement was seen as the return of industrial policy planning, and aroused the usual criticism of public voluntarism.
The criticism is questionable because, in this case, it is not really about planning. The themes are primarily intended to stimulate innovation and new industries. However, numerous studies have shown that innovation policy – whether public or private – can only succeed if its design, control and evaluation is clearly away from a logic of planning (Philippe Lefebvre, researcher at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Paris : ” Organizing deliberate innovation in knowledge clusters : from accidental to purposeful brokering brokering processes” [Organiser l’innovation dans les écosystèmes : au-delà de l’émergence accidentelle, un pilotage des interactions créatrices], International Journal of Technology Management , Vol. 63 , No. 3/4, 2013).

A LARGE PART OF UNCERTAINTY
For what is a “plan”? In order to guide future action, one builds representations. We “plan” our vacation, which route to take and the loss of a few pounds. Still, while conceding uncertainties, a plan assumes that the goal, the means and the partners are sufficiently known. We may, at the limit, think that the means and partners will be selected “along the way”. But we must at least specify the goal. Agricultural policy, telecommunications policy and housing policy are built as plans which aim is clearly displayed: for example, a quantified production or equipment amount at a national level.
This is not the case anymore for a genuine innovation agenda. One must admit that the purpose is necessarily largely unknown. It is not possible anymore to specify in advance the paths and the most interesting results of the project.
Paradoxically, this does not prevent an innovative concept from mobilizing resources. Who would want a car “consuming less than two liters per 100 km”? But we must recognize that we do not know how this value will be transformed to in effecient technologies and products: will these be small city cars? Intelligent control systems? New types of vehicles and fuels? And we ignore if new businesses or new markets will emerge in the adventure.
History confirms thoroughly the surprising rationality of major innovation programs . In 1854, Austria launched the Semmering Pass competition for the design of the first locomotive for mountains. Many solutions were proposed, but none could succeed. However, the major beneficiaries of the innovations were Semmering … new locomotives in the plains!

OPENING NEW PATHS
Closer to us, neither Toyota nor Apple have ever launched projects to produce the Prius or iPhone. Their success came from their ability to pilot open innovation programs (” green car”, man-machine “magic” interfaces) and take advantage, before their competitors, of the disappointments or discoveries encountered. It is important to open very contrasting paths and pay attention to the crossings and learning that each causes.
For uncertainty does not paralyze action: it prevents its management according to the rigid codes of planning. In recent years, research has clarified the cognitive and collective mechanisms that restrict or enhance the exploration of the unknown. One better understands the control rules adapted to innovation, whether innovative design approaches (expansion of alternatives, conceptual hybridizations, exploration prototyping…) or the management of the various values that emerge (new skills, new markets, new usages…). In this respect, classical rationality is often misleading.
In the logic of the plan, there is the project distinct from its “benefits”. The success of the project is the goal, the benefits being recorded afterwards. This distinction does no longer exist in an innovation program. A “benefit” may be more important than the project itself. Driving innovation is to be prepared for the changing identity of the project and actively cause unexpected “impact”. The indeterminacy between “project” and “benefits” multiplies the sources of value and minimizes financial risks.
Beyond the economic rationality that is optimized in the known world, the rationality of innovation is reflected in the ability of project managers to regenerate solutions, markets and partnerships.
Faced with the challenge of industrial revival, the question is not whether the State should use planning. It is especially important to ensure that major projects launched will be conducted by the State and its industrial partners in the most rigorous approaches and more consistent with the expected intensity of innovation .

Harmand Hatchuel is a professor at Mines ParisTech

The Entrepreneurial State (part 3) – the State behind the iPhone

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 Comment »

Mazzucato’s book is so important and interesting that it will take me many articles to cover it in a satisfying manner (to me at least).

Part 1 covers the Innovation dilemmas and crises. The “6 myths” she introduces are great.
Part 2 deals with the (forgotten or untold) role of the state in stimulating innovation through research. I had more disagreements with her on how far the State should act in the innovation ecosystem.
– In this part 3, I will focus on Chapter 5, about the role of the State in the iPhone technologies.
– Part 4 will deal with the chapters on Green technologies
– and I will need a part 5 to conclude and share thoughts.

Chapter 5 – the State behind the iPhone

Mazzucato shows here how “Apple concentrates its ingenuity not on developing new technologies and components, but on integrating them into an innovative architecture. […] Apple’s capabilities are mainly (a) recognizing emerging technologies with great potential, (b) apply complex engineering skills that successfully integrate recognized emerging technologies, and (c) maintain a clear corporate vision prioritizing design-oriented product development.” [Page 93]

Therefore “Apple received enormous direct and/or indirect government support derived from three major areas: (1) direct equity investment, (2) access to technologies, and (3) creation of tax or technology policies.” I mentioned already the first area and expressed my doubts. No objection and no discussion about the third area. I agree only partly with the second area: I have the feeling the access was through corporations, which themselves may have had access to government or academic research. Xerox PARC is the most famous examples, but Apple also acquired little-known start-ups which had developed products from such research. Mazzucato built her own “Origins of popular Apple products.”

Iphone Technologies origin

It is a very interesting drawing but I would have liked to see which “entity” developed the mentioned products. In some cases, it is a government related body, such as for the Internet for example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet) and in other cases it is a private entity funded initially with public money.

SIRI is an interesting example as it has some roots here at EPFL. The CALO program was funded by DARPA, but a start-up was launched with venture capital money in 2008, which was then acquired by Apple.

When it comes to displays, Mazzucato quotes Florida and Browdy and “The invention that got away” (1991) about the inability of private actors to build manufacturing capabilities. “The loss of this [TFT-LCD] display technology reveals fundamental weaknesses of the US high-technology system. Not only did our large corporations lack the vision and the persistence to turn the invention into a marketable product, but the venture capital financiers who made possible such high-technology industries as semiconductors and computers failed too.” The paper shows the higher efforts of the Japanese industry pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology development. In my analysis of Stanford-related high-tech companies, I remember being stricken by the amount of funding of Candescent. On the Internet archive dated 1998, I could find the following:
“Candescent Technologies Corporation is a seven-year old company developing a revolutionary new flat panel display [which is] a dramatic improvement over the liquid-crystal displays. In 1991 Candescent formed a strategic alliance with Hewlett-Packard Company. As of May 1, 1998 Candescent had received more than $337 million in funding from investing strategic partners, venture capital firms, institutional investors, US Government-sponsored organizations, and capital equipment leasing firms.” In 2001, it had raised more than $600M with Compaq, Citicorp, Hewlett-Packard, J.P. Morgan, New Enterprise Associates, Sevin-Rosen, Sierra Venture Affiliates, and others. In June 2004, Candescent filed a Voluntary Reorganization case under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in the San Jose Bankruptcy Court. In August 2004, Candescent sold substantially all of its assets, including its flat panel display intellectual property to Canon, Inc.”

Again, I do not have major disagreements with Mazzacuto but my experience with innovation is that it is a very uncertain activity and I am not sure it is due only to the lack of private sector support. In the end, neither Japan nor the USA won, but Korea with Samsung and LG.

I knew less about multi-touch screens and the interesting story of FingerWorks, which assets Apple bought when the company went bankrupt.
“The company’s products remained a high-end niche, and something of a curiosity, despite good press and industry awards. In early 2005, FingerWorks went through a rocky period, and stopped shipping new products. Outside reports indicated that they had been acquired by a major technology company. This company turned out to be Apple. In June 2005, FingerWorks officially announced they were no longer in business. The founders continued to file and process patents for their work through late 2007. And as of August 2008 they still filed patents for Apple, Inc.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FingerWorks)
Again Apple also worked with Corning to develop ultra-robust screens called the Gorilla Glass (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorilla_Glass).

On the microprocessor, I have two similar comments:
– Though there are many sources claimed for the microprocessor, it is often mentioned that Intel really launched the technology as a product and this came as an order from a Japanese company, not from public procurement.
– Much later, Apple bought P.A. Semi. which developed specialized microprocessors. Well even P.A. Semi. had strong links with the DoD so Mazzucato still has a strong point!

As an interesting comparison, the MIT technology review had a hacking session of the Apple I, iPhone and iPad, which shows the brilliance of integration. There were many computers and smart phones, but at Apple, there was the genius of Wozniak and others when Jobs came back – http://www.technologyreview.com/view/425238/classic-hacks-the-apple-i-computer-the-iphone-and-the-ipad-3g/

Iphone Technologies sketch

My reaction is that yes, many not to say most technologies have their roots with public entities, at least at the research stage, but the development is often concretized in small companies, with or without venture capital. Apple buys fewer VC-funded companies than Cisco’s A&D (Acquisition & Development) and clearly most big companies do not do much research. The challenge lies in the ability of translating research results into development, which many start-ups achieve. This is the Silicon Valley model.

I finish my notes on chapter 5 with Mazzacuto: “It is indisputable that most of Apple’s best technologies exist because of the prior collective and cumulative efforts driven by the State.” [Page 112]