Eugene A. Fitzgerald: An interview by Bob Morris

Eugene A. Fitzgerald

Eugene A. Fitzgerald was born in Springfield, MA, USA. He received a BS degree in Materials Science and Engineering in 1985 from MIT and his PhD in the same discipline from Cornell University in 1989. Building upon his early experience at AT&T Bell Labs, he has created and led a series of fundamental innovations, from early technology to final implementation in the market. A serial entrepreneur, he is a founder of founding team member of 5 start-up ventures. Dr. Fitzgerald is a recipient of the 2011 IEEE Andrew S. Grove Award, and is currently the Merton C. Flemings SMA Professor of Materials Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book, Inside Real Innovation: How the Right Approach Can Move Ideas from R&D to Market – And Get the Economy Moving, was co-authored with Andreas Wankerl, and Carl Schramm and published by World Scientific Publishing Company (November, 2010).

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Morris: Before discussing Inside Real Innovation, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Fitzgerald:  Hard to leave family out; but if I do, I would say my colleagues at AT&T Bell Laboratories and my continued relationships with my students over their time at the university and also their progress in their careers (some of whom have been partners or participants in our start-up companies).  My colleagues abroad have been influential in continue to expand my view of the world.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Fitzgerald:  This is a bit easier than the former, since my development is clearly marked with collaborations and partnerships at various points which have allowed me to continue to develop professionally, and all of whom are close friends even if distance or career has separated us since our collaboration.  Many of these people are mentioned in the book.  In graduate school, my PhD advisor Prof. Dieter Ast and IBM Fellow Dr. Jerry Woodall had great influence on my introduction to research and the research world.  At AT&T Bell Laboratories, it was clearly my collaboration with Dr. Ya-Hong Xie, who is now a Prof. at UCLA.  Upon entering back into Academe, Prof. Dimitri Antoniadis was a close collaborator and guidepost at MIT but very importantly, with the silicon CMOS industry as well.

Working with my former graduate student, Dr. Mayank Bulsara, in founding my first company was another step further out into a different portion of the world- building a company and hiring and managing together many different kinds of people.  And my friend and collaborator Prof. Steve Ringel from Ohio State University has been there for 20 years as we have both grown professionally, and we founded a current start-up together in 2005.  Since 2005, Prof. Soon Yoon at NTU in Singapore has been a collaborator and confidant and helped me begin to understand more about Asia.  Regarding my growth in innovation work, Dr. Andreas Wankerl has been absolutely crucial to our collaborative thinking (which started more than 8 years ago), and Lesa Mitchell and Carl Schramm were also crucial partners at the Kauffman Foundation.  Each of these people has played a significant role in my professional development.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Fitzgerald:  I think many people, if they are introspective, have certain moments in life that seem to be key in determining where you go.  The first one was in third grade.  For whatever reason, I wanted to make and build stuff, and somehow that meant I must become a scientist.  Getting admitted to MIT as undergraduate was nearly impossible from my perspective since only one other person from my high school was ever admitted, so clearly that admission sent me down a path that I had only dreamed of pursuing.  Junior year I became very interested in solid state physics and semiconductors, and a Prof told me to think about graduate school (really, I had not thought about it- I had wanted to learn, get out, and build something), and I only applied to MIT and Cornell, was admitted, and decided to change environments and head to Ithaca.  I pursued industrial corporate laboratories as I approached graduation from Cornell, and certainly, AT&T Bell Labs recruiting me directly into a research position at a young age (I did ugrad and grad in 7 years) had one of the largest influences on my early path.

Having achieved a low probability dream of inventing something really important, and then not being able to make it real within AT&T, is probably one of the most significant events spurring my interest in innovation.  This interest initially mutated into entrepreneurship, and continues there, but the constant thought that the mystery of innovation and problem choice should be unraveled continued.

I also think a key aspect of my path was early involvement in the Singapore-MIT Alliance, which started in 1999.  After 10 years working on SMA, I am now continuing a more intense global research program in MIT’s first research center outside the US, the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART).  All of these factors continue to influence each other: new experience, continued research, continued commercialization, etc.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your career thus far?

Fitzgerald: This is an especially interesting question.  It seems that the answer should be straight-forward, especially for a professor at one of the prestigious higher-level teaching institutions.  However, the relationship between in-the-classroom education and outside success is complicated.  Connecting specific injection of certain concepts into the gray matter to a relative measure called ‘success’ sometimes makes me think that we know little about education except that it somehow seems to work in general.  But for my value system, it is clear that formal education at MIT as an undergraduate was very important in: a) understanding how things work, i.e. real scientific and engineering basics; b) problem solving.  I would say that a) and b) are a key foundation to impacting real things.

Morris: What differentiates creativity from innovation?

Fitzgerald: The way we define innovation in Inside Real Innovation is an embodiment of a useful idea in the marketplace.  We carefully defined innovation this way to separate it from invention and science.  One problem with the term innovation is that the dictionary definition essentially is ‘innovations=ideas’ and many people discuss it at this nebulous level; yet our modern connotation has moved beyond that, something we think is closer to our definition.  Creativity is a skill or human trait that aids in innovation, invention, science, etc.  We have therefore put innovation on the highest pedestal; it is the outcome of invention, science, creativity, entrepreneurial processes, etc.

Morris: Let’s say that you encounter someone who insists, “I’m not a creative person.” What is your response?

Fitzgerald: Once again, you have hit upon a question that I have pondered for years; first as a student, then as a scientist, and in more recent times, as a manager of people in my start-up companies.  When young, I believed that anybody can do anything; it seemed to be more circumstance that limited some people.  But this thought became more refined with maturity, and I now believe the same core principle, but I think that people limit themselves.  So when someone says “I am not a creative person”, I think first that they are limiting themselves, and second, we can increase their confidence in their creativity by getting them to extend themselves beyond their boundaries.  Some people can extend more than others; but in the end, extending beyond their boundaries always increases their creativity a bit; some people can continue this process, and in the end, they gain confidence that they can be more creative than they thought.  Early conditioning, however, is difficult to overcome completely.

Morris: What are the correlations between structure, order, limits, etc. and the creative process?

Fitzgerald: If we consider the innovation process, which is a creative process, then our model in IRI presents the process as a balance between structure, order, limits, and extending into the uncertain.  I believe this is why humans are innovative, i.e. we have the ability to be conditioned with various realities, but still retain the ability to consider uncertainty and understand that some realities are not always permanent.  It is not easy; most people try to have a lot of order and structure, while some cannot achieve enough structure and order to turn day dreaming into an innovative process.  So hybridizing in the middle seems to be unstable for most; but our education system should strive to achieve this innovative state in the students.

It reminds me of what a Singapore colleague told me about their future optimal education system: primary school of Asia, secondary school of Europe, and higher education of the US.  I also think this would be optimal.  Set some structure and fundamental learnings early, but drilling to long seems to condition the mind to avoid working in uncertain territory.  But in the US, the secondary system has drifted so far and lax in many places that there is too little knowledge and structure achieved.  If we have done the early steps through secondary correctly, then the US higher education system seems to be very effective at getting closer to the ‘hybridized’ thinking required for innovation.  But I do believe we can do better.  At MIT, I have been trying to inject more components on top of the engineering curricula that will bring innovation to the forefront more substantially.

Morris: Are you convinced that “necessity is the mother of invention”

Fitzgerald: Yes.  Our innovation model folds necessity in from the Market element in our process.

Morris: Is the quality of coverage of innovation today in MBA programs better, worse, or about the same as it was 3-5 years ago? Please explain.

Fitzgerald:  Most MBA programs do not cover innovation well, yesterday or today.  In fact, in many ways it seems to be ‘out-sourced’ to the engineering school.

Of course, engineering schools tend to concentrate today more on invention and science than innovation.  So the key factor to economic growth, innovation, falls into a gap structurally at most universities.

Covering innovation in both MBA and engineering programs in the future is critical to the university enterprise as well as to the economy, long term.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you became involved with your first start-up company?

Fitzgerald: Wow!  So much.  Let me list a few things: understanding a wide variety of people that you end up employing; how long innovations take to get to market; how investment capital can distort a business; understanding that no matter how well you design an interview process, you can’t filter well up-front and therefore need a way to evaluate performance and correct in the short term; that the first business plan cannot possibly determine the path of the company; that doing innovative things in a start-up gets even harder when the ecosystem (such as the supply chain) does less innovation itself…

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Inside Real Innovation. When and why did you, Andreas Wankerl, and Carl Schramm decide to write it?

Fitzgerald:  I have explained in the interview previously why innovation became a focus of mine over time.  So I wanted to write a book so that the ideas would be out there, especially for when we encounter what we are encountering now: slow growth.  I knew people would concentrate on the symptoms, as they are doing now, instead of the cause.  But I hope that this can at least be one contribution out there that looks a bit deeper into really why innovation growth is low.

Given that, Andreas and I had discussed the changes in corporate research and the consequences for the innovation pipeline as well as the consequences for universities.  So we set out in 2006 to build what became the Innovation Interface, which is a way for corporations to run innovation projects with universities.  The experiences in II and from my start-up experiences eventually led to Inside Real Innovation.  In parallel, I had met key people like Lesa Mitchell and Carl Schramm at the Kauffman Foundation, and over time we kept bouncing ideas about innovation off each other; and the Kauffman Foundation is a rich resource in both people that think about entrepreneurship and growth as well as a source of data.  All this eventually integrated into IRI.

Morris: What differentiates it from other books that also examine the innovation process?

Fitzgerald: Two huge problems with innovation books are that the authors are not innovators and/or they leave the concept of innovation at a nebulous level.  So they tend to “talk about innovation” and present case studies etc., leaving the reader to believe that this is some sort of “secret garden” which cannot really be studied at a detailed level.  We argue it can be, as long as you can scope from what is happening in the innovative mind all the way out to macroeconomics.  Most books these days discuss innovation and innovation processes in the context of organizations alone.

As we have detailed in IRI, organizations do not do innovation; people do.  Organizations can be optimized for innovation productivity only if they are engineered to allow innovators and innovative teams from the ground-up.  Most books follow a linear funnel model, in which everyone sits in a room and puts ideas on a table; then these are filtered and a few of them pursued further.  Although the funnel is an attempt to be a little bit more than a straight linear model, it is still a linear model; iteration and long time lines for fundamental innovation are a side-note at best in most books.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Fitzgerald: The usual: the process of writing crystallized many of the main points in our minds, making us realize the strength of the concepts.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Fitzgerald: The book was re-organized several times.  Initially, we had a more chronological form with the history up front, but then we realized that the iterative innovation model is the lens that we needed to use for both the examples as well as the history, and so we moved the model up front.  The worry is that it puts the heavy-lifting up front, so we are concerned about losing the reader.  But there is really no other way to do it.

The other difference was really created by tension between Andreas’ style and my style.  We both felt that my serious tone in writing made the message too negative (as our purpose was to hopefully have all interested parties understand the situation and improve things through their own actions over time).  So we carefully went through and made sure that even though there are tough messages throughout the book, we tried to have a positive tone to encourage hope and action for the future.

Morris: The book’s title caught my eye. Please explain what is meant by “real” innovation as opposed to, let’s say, “unreal” or “non-real” innovation?

Fitzgerald: That was the intended effect.  The indirect reference to unreal innovation is towards works that incorrectly characterize innovation and innovation processes as well as towards people that hype technology or science as great innovation but in reality the result in question is far from true innovation.

Morris: “Innovation is not a straight-line process.” Please explain.

Fitzgerald: The general concept that the vast majorities of people believe or follow is the idea that there is discovery that turns into a prototype that turns into a marketed innovation.  This straight line process is not wrong in a historical sense, but it is wrong in the actual process that is used during the formation of the historical straight-line representation.  Our iterative model folds in the inherent messiness in the process; it recognizes upfront that the exact form of the innovation and its path cannot be known exactly.  In an entrepreneurial perspective, the generation of multiple updated business plans over time is completely normal if you are bringing an innovative concept to market. The idea needs to be tested iteratively, through time, between Technology Market and Implementation elements.  After this process is finished, we can write a straight-line history of how the idea changed at each stage as it moved to market.  But that history is not the process that occurred in creating the innovation.

Morris: What is an “innovative pipeline” and what are the defining characteristics of one that is effective, efficient, and robustt?

Fitzgerald: The innovation pipeline is the path for developing innovations, which move along this path from initial concept to market.  It consists of a necessarily unorganized set of organizations, people, and finance that can move a fundamental innovation over a long period of time from concept to viable market embodiment.  An efficient pipeline is one in which the gaps that delay an innovation along its path are small and surmountable and one that is also capitally efficient.  We believe that the current pipeline is inefficient; many ideas at the beginning of the process are being generated that have a low probability of success, and the lack of overlap between corporate investment and government investment creates a gigantic gap between universities and corporations.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “information age paradox.”

Fitzgerald:  I think you mean here the ‘information age paradigm’.   This is the innovation paradigm we have been living in since ~1960.  Fundamental innovations in materials, physics, and electronics came together to create a 50-year run of unprecedented growth.  There are many details, but basically the fundamental innovation of the transistor allowed the formation and continuous growth of a supply chain composed of the transistor, integrated circuit, computers, operating systems, application software, Internet, and web applications.  This supply chain began at the bottom of the sequence (the transistor) and each level was built on top of the other.  However, an amazing thing transpired- even though the supply chain was progressing, the previous levels in the supply chain kept advancing.  It is an economic sector where not only were we adding new levels that grew at 20-30% per year with sometimes 50% margins, but the previous levels also continued to innovate and continued to grow at these rates as well.  Most people think of Google as being very different from Intel.  But they are both part of the information age paradigm.  The unusual feature that allowed this entire supply chain to continue to grow, instead of just creating the new level on top, is the fact that the number of transistors that could be fabricated in a given area was growing geometrically with time.  Thus, the entire supply chain would essentially rebuild itself as time went on.  This rapidly increasing density of transistors with time is called ‘Moore’s Law’

Morris: Why is Moore’s Law “the cocaine that our financial system gurus are addicted to”? What are the consequences, especially social impact, of that addiction?

Fitzgerald: The supply chain of the information age paradigm I mentioned previously created a 50-year productivity wave that mankind has never seen before (the industrial age was fantastic as well, but the information age transpired in an even shorter period of time).  The wealth produced by this sector is essentially the growth engine of the US and the world over this period of time.  People consistently underestimate the effect of this innovation paradigm.  For example, the migration of office work from rooms filled with people to PC’s and then laptops is also a productivity increase from the information age that isn’t even directly in the supply chain I mentioned above (the software is in the supply chain, but the productivity gains from using the software is not).

There are serious consequences to such a prolonged productivity wave.  It creates benefits such as ‘The Great Moderation’, a termed used by economists to describe the amazingly tranquil growth that occurred over this period.  However, we could also call this ‘The Moore’s Law Instability’, since prolonged periods of great wealth creation always results in a massive correction and pain at the end of the paradigm.  Many things happen towards the end of the paradigm.  Investors and governments lose track of where the growth comes from, believing that historical trends over previous half-centuries continue; they forget that they (the government and financial communities) both earn a fee based on the wealth creation of this engine, but grow to thinking that somehow they create the growth itself.

Many jobs are created by the wealth that are not directly related to the engine of growth itself, thus improving society but in an inherently unstable way long-term.  The main hope has to be that our innovation system has improved, or can be fixed, so that another innovation paradigm is created that allows higher growth to return for all.  And that the free economy is able to re-task many individuals into needed employment in the new paradigm.

Morris: What are the basic components and elements of the “new model” that you and your co-authors, Andreas Wankerl, and Carl Schramm, propose for the innovation process?

Fitzgerald: We create three basic elements for the innovation model: Market, Implementation, and Technology.  Briefly, Market consists of current, past, and future market applications of the potential innovation.  Technology consists of new, old, and future technology components that may be used in the potential innovation.  By ‘technology components’, we mean pieces of knowledge, pieces of technology, pieces of science, etc.  Implementation is current, previous, and future methods for allowing the technology pieces to come together in a business process to address the market application.  For example, supply chain structure, business models, cost, etc all fold into Implementation.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between this model and all others?

Fitzgerald: First, the inclusion of Implementation as an element on equal standing with Market and Technology is significant.  I first noticed the need for this component in my first company.  In hindsight, we did not really invest most of the capital in Technology, as it was developed to a great degree before the founding of the company; and the Market application space needed to be narrowed over time as well, but this occurred relatively rapidly.  Thus, most of our capital was consumed by narrowing the uncertainty in Implementation, as we define it today, but I could see that entrepreneurs and investors at the time didn’t really pay enough attention to this ‘missing element’.

There are two key features of the innovation process model.  One is that all of these elements exist during the entire phase of innovation progression, and that they constantly influence each other; thus, the process of innovation requires the iteration between the elements to reduce the uncertainty in each.  The consequence of this seemingly simple statement is that even at the research stage, for example, Market and Implementation play a key role in research problem selection.  If not, the probability for achieving a fundamental innovation at the end of the process is near zero.  Second, the uncertainty in each of these elements must be increased the more fundamental you want the innovation to be.  For example, if we want a ‘game changing’, ‘sector changing’ innovation, we must open up the potential Market application space, the Technology possibilities that might be used, and the way that the innovation is implemented.  The reason is that new convergence outside the previous norms must be found, and it cannot be found simply by slightly changing one element.  A consequence of this observation is that with increased uncertainty, more time is required to iterate between Market, Implementation, and Technology in order to converge on a fundamental innovation.  This fact means that longer-term investments are required to achieve fundamental innovations.

Morris: What are the greatest challenges that any innovation process is certain to encounter?

Fitzgerald: Acceptance of the smaller failures.  If people are entering into a start-up or another organization to try and innovate, and they are thinking about the old straight-line innovation model, they become depressed and think there is something wrong with them as things don’t progress along the exact lines they laid out in the initial plan.  If you think about our model we describe the process of creating smaller failures to decrease the uncertainty in each of the elements over time.  So, as innovators, we need to be comfortable in creating small failures that reveal the right path, and be happy we are avoiding the humongous failure that we would encounter if we were not iterating properly.

Morris: To what extent (if any) can they be avoided?

Fitzgerald: Small failures cannot be avoided, but with training, innovators can be comfortable with them, and realize maybe that if they are not seeing enough of them, they may not be iterating and reducing risk in one of the other elements.

Morris: How best to overcome those challenges?

Fitzgerald:  Read Inside Real Innovation and get comfortable with the real innovation process [smile].

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 3’s title, “One Person, One Iteration at a Time.”

Fitzgerald: We wanted to lead the reader through a few examples of the process we presented in Chapter 2.  So, in this chapter, we try and bring the reader through the actual thought process of doing ‘an iteration’ and then doing it over and over again.  The title is meant to reflect what actually happens, but also it is meant to reflect that people do the innovation, and that is the focus of the chapter.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Inside Real Innovation, what are the defining characteristics of fundamental innovation?

Fitzgerald: A fundamental innovation, at the end, creates a whole new way of doing things- it alters the previous structure of the industry in a large way.  From the model perspective, it requires a long time to arrive at, with lots of iteration and a lot of uncertainty up front.  Often times we hear the story of how an innovator 10 years prior did not actual foresee the exact embodiment or market application.  In our model, this makes perfect sense.

Morris: In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen makes a distinction between sustainable (i.e. incremental) and disruptive (i.e. fundamental) technology. What do you think?

Fitzgerald: We connect our spectrum of innovation space to Christensen’s language because of the huge influence his book has had on thinking about innovation in organizations (and its big impact on us as well).  We point out that in our model, the most incremental innovations are his ‘sustaining’ innovations, and that the most fundamental innovations are ‘disruptive’.  We point out that our model explains the entire range of innovation, from the seemingly trivial, to moderate innovations like current Apple products, to very fundamental and disruptive innovations like the transistor. Our model eliminates the requirement of determining if something is too simple an advance to be an innovation (it is still an innovation in our model), and it eliminates the need to classify it in a binary way (sustaining or disruptive).

Morris: Please explain the reasons for using stories in Chapter 5.

Fitzgerald: Tracking the real process behind fundamental innovations is difficult because the meandering path over long periods of time usually obscures the iterative process because the information often exists in different organizations, across different people, and the only information available in hind sight, if any, is the historical linear representation.  Because we were part of the strained silicon story from beginning to end, it gives unusual insight into the iterative process that occurred over a 20-year period.  The other shorter stories are just meant to show a diversity of examples in which we can describe the innovation process.

Morris: Please identify the key developments during various phases of the U.S. innovation system.

Fitzgerald: Compton and Bush at MIT (and later Bush at the Carnegie Institute in Washington) made a significant step in the 1930’s: national investment in research will result in the transition of new physics and electrodynamics into war applications.  The other aspect of their action is that the investment would involve collaboration between industry, government, and universities (especially MIT).  These technology investments came to fruition in warfare just in time in the ‘40’s, playing a large role in the Allied Victory.  After the war, Bush was a proponent of continued national investment in research since he felt it would spur commerce in analogy to the resulting advancements achieved in war technology.  The combination of these longer term investments, which industry would not do at the time, combined with the US having the only advanced industrial capability intact post WWII, lead to a period which we called ‘innovation without competition’.  US corporations began to invest long-term themselves, since they observed the benefit of research investment and since they controlled their end-market (no competition essentially, since Kodak was film, IBM was office equipment/computers, etc).  The rewards encouraged even more research investment, and thus the corporate university labs overlapped the university timelines, allowing for an optimal innovation pipeline for a while.

However, the ability to finish the innovation process in what became eventually these large vertical bureaucratic companies was difficult since many of the innovations required convergence on markets or implementation that the company was not skilled in or unwilling to pursue.  Thus, it became clear that, for example, Bell Labs and Xerox Labs created many innovations that were commercialized by others willing to delve into the required Market and Implementation.

This created an age from 1980-2000 whose signature was a plethora of entrepreneurial start-ups that took concepts, people, and ideas that stalled in corporate labs and brought them to market.  Returns were high as the previous investments by corporate labs and government research funding were not recorded on the balance sheet of the new entities.

However, from 2000 to present, we lack corporate long-term research investments.   Combined with an emptying of the previous pipeline, these trends have resulted in a lack of fundamental innovations being deployed today.  The slower growth due to a maturing Moore’s Law is revealing an economic disequilibrium which is present when a strong innovation growth paradigm is missing.

Morris: Chapter 7 begins as follows: The innovation pipeline needs to be restructured, not just repaired. A new system must be built which is in line with the realities of the present situation, and appropriate to the yet-unnamed new era that we are entering. If we can arrive at such a system, it will offer the greatest opportunity for real economic growth that we have seen in years.”

Here’s my question: What specifically does restructuring require? By whom? Financed by which funding sources?

Fitzgerald:  This is an important aspect of the book, and some may feel it is less satisfying.  However, we pursue the idea that the new system must be arrived at from the bottom-up; so in the subsequent chapters, we set the stage for each stakeholder, with the idea that if each stakeholder looks at the innovation situation from their own perspective, they will act on it, thereby building a new innovation system from the ground up.  A corollary is that with people and organizations doing things in their own interest regarding innovation, the government will be able to slightly modify its current funding mechanisms to encourage greater innovation efficiency.  We realize that most innovation books, at this stage, describe some top-down government driven master plan.  We resist this temptation to focus on policy by understanding the ecosystem, how the innovation process works, and seeing the only viable path to a real new system.

Morris: Please explain this assertion: “Corporations need organic top-line growth, and for that they need to innovate. But taking advantage of the new age will require capability that no longer resides in most corporations.”

Fitzgerald:  One of the best acts that large corporations and multinationals have performed over the last two decades is portraying themselves as leading through innovation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As we discuss, the majority of corporations have become the Operational Corporation, and soon there is no more out-sourcing to be had, and once low capital costs in the US disappear (apparently not for a couple of years as the Fed just announcedJ), the E in the ‘P/E’ ratio will be determined by organic growth in the corporation (i.e. not growth from optimizing current processes and products).  However, when this point is reached, these corporations know that any remnants of their previous internal innovation systems have long ago been terminated, so there will be a lot of investment and work to do just as their numbers are not satisfying to investors.  They should start now, while their balance sheets are great and they have time.  If I were on a board of a large multi-national, I would encourage investment into building a modern age innovation system in their company since it will take a while (to form, and to get the results).

Morris: As I read and then re-read the book, I became even more convinced than I was before that the single greatest challenge is to think innovatively about innovation. I think that is one of the core concepts in the book. Is that a fair assessment?

Fitzgerald:  Ha!  That is correct.  As an example of your observation, regarding the previous discussion of corporate innovation, if a company is to embark on building innovative capabilities, they will have to be innovative in creating a new structure around the innovation process that they need to embed.  Most corporate structures for innovation are linear, and they will not create high innovation productivity.

Morris: Whatever its size and nature may be, can almost any organization adopt or at least adapt the new model introduced in the book?

Fitzgerald: Absolutely!  By concentrating on the process itself, we have been able to realize that any-sized organization can perform the process.

Morris: In your opinion, what role can — and [begin italics] should [end italics] — universities and governments play in the new innovation system proposed?

Fitzgerald:  The most important issues for universitiesare (1) leave the idea behind that they generated most of the innovations that created growth in the information paradigm aside; (2) recognize that university contributions in the paradigm were the graduates that went into excellent innovative environments outside the university; (3) make the university as porous as possible to outside Market and Implementation information (e.g. much tighter relationships to corporations); and (4) engineering+ is the new liberal arts.  What I mean by “engineering +” is that without a strong paradigm, we will enter a time period where institutions of higher learning will need to create the infamous ‘T’ shaped person.  A ‘T-shaped’ person is one with the depth to understand a variety of technologies in society but a breadth that makes them problem solvers for society.  Engineering schools and departments need the ‘+’ (some suggestions in the book) and other schools and departments need some sort of condensed engineering core.

Corporations need to start figuring out their new innovation model.  It will not be the old model (huge corporate labs) and it will not be open innovation models where they sit back and just buy IP and start-ups from the ether.  A main point in the book is that they will not likely find high quality technology ripe for the picking without their involvement at an earlier stage.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. First, please explain how innovation education can be uniquely beneficial to “One Person’s” development.

Fitzgerald:  People that understand innovation and can participate in an innovating team or be an innovator themselves will understand the times we are headed into, can make wise decisions about their career path, and contribute to new innovation paradigms- they will look at the world and be able to find new opportunities in a seemingly more chaotic world.

Morris: Next, which specific core skills must “One Person” develop? Why preferably through a mentorship?

Fitzgerald:  A key skill is the ability to delve into details in the elements at sufficient depth to narrow the uncertainty in Market, Technology, and Implementation.  Analysis and designing projects or experiments to narrow the uncertainty efficiently is essentially engineering and the scientific method, just applied more broadly (i.e. not just to the Technology element).  However, being able to temporarily leave one element (say Technology) when it has been de-risked faster than other elements and moving onto de-risking (or reducing the uncertainty) in the other elements, or doing so in parallel, is a skill that is difficult to create by just talking about it.  We hope that Inside Real Innovation, combined with future work that we do, can be a study component; but it should be used in conjunction with working on an innovation project with an experienced innovation to more quickly relate to the process.

Morris: In your opinion, how should mentors be developed? What specifically can  — and should  — institutional resources support that development process?

Fitzgerald: Mentors should originate from people that have worked on trying to create innovations (note here that someone could be excellent at performing the innovation process but has not had a successful convergence on an innovation).  Then, introducing this person that had more or less done this naturally to our description of the process would allow them to develop, over time, the ability to be a mentor for innovation projects.

Regarding institutional resources, universities should have programs to identify and recruit these innovation mentors (or managers) from within and, most likely, from outside the university, and develop an interface to the outside world where such innovation managers can work on real innovation projects.  Such projects can develop from activity in the university itself or from activity with a corporate partner.  A similar strategy should be implemented for corporations interested in creating innovative environments.  They should create an HR process internally for identifying innovation leaders and team members, and creating innovation projects that extend beyond the inner confines of the corporation.  And of course, if both university and corporations were doing so, investing in creating overlap between corporate innovation managers and university innovation managers would be an excellent investment of resources.

Morris: Looking ahead, let’s say, 3-5 years, what do you think will be the biggest challenge that innovators will face? Why? Any advice?

Fitzgerald:  I think the challenge will be the same as it is today: how to find a sequence of organizations that will allow an innovator’s passion about their idea to develop over time and become a real innovation.  It is unlikely that within 3-5 years we will have corporations or universities that have transitioned enough that an innovator could create an innovation in a single organization.  So I would recommend working in various companies and possibly the occasional university stop to perform iterative innovation over time.  We need to start educating people that their employment is not just a sequence of jobs, but a path that builds the innovator and the innovation; recognizing this early is, in itself, very productive.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Fitzgerald:  I cannot think of one, Robert. You have touched on the important topics.

*     *      *

Gene Fitzgerald cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites


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  2. […] Working with my former graduate student, Dr. Mayank Bulsara, in founding my first company was another step further out into a different portion of the world- building a company and hiring and managing together many different kinds of people.  And my friend and collaborator Prof. Steve Ringel from Ohio State University has been there for 20 years as we have both grown professionally, and we founded a current start-up together in 2005.  Since 2005, Prof. Soon Yoon at NTU in Singapore has been a collaborator and confidant and helped me begin to understand more about Asia.  Regarding my growth in innovation work, Dr. Andreas Wankerl has been absolutely crucial to our collaborative thinking (which started more than 8 years ago), and Lesa Mitchell and Carl Schramm were also crucial partners at the Kauffman Foundation.  Each of these people has played a significant role in my professional development. Read more. […]

  3. bobmorris on November 7, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They are deeply appreciated. We are all in it (i.e. humanity) together and do whatever we can to help others. Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday because its unquenchable spirit of appreciation and gratitude serves as fuel when I need it most. Best wishes and warmest regards.

  4. […] Regarding my growth in innovation work, Dr. Andreas Wankerl has been absolutely crucial to our collaborative thinking (which started more than 8 years ago), and Lesa Mitchell and Carl Schramm were also crucial partners at the Kauffman Foundation.  Each of these people has played a significant role in my professional development. Read more. […]

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