Two former CEOs, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Chad Holliday of DuPont, wrote in an April 23, 2010, op-ed in the Washington Post: “The core force of innovation—vision, experimentation, and wise investments—has led to thousands of breakthroughs that benefit us all. A serious commitment to innovation can be transformative.” Indeed, the linkage of R&D investment and its translation to societal benefit, a vibrant economy, an improved quality of life, and job creation have been demonstrated for centuries.
Albert Szent-Györgyi famously stated, “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” However, invention alone is not sufficient for translation to the marketplace. The critical next step in the process requires innovation, which is distinct from invention. In other words, invention is the conversion of cash into ideas, whereas innovation is the conversion of ideas into cash.
Consider Nikola Tesla. He was an inventor and invested a lot to create his inventions but was unable ever to monetize them. In contrast, Thomas Edison, although the holder of more than 1,000 patents, drove innovation to the marketplace, amassing a fortune while bringing incredible products to the public.
Obviously, it is not sufficient to “do the work right,” that is, excellent science and collaboration. One must also “do the right work.” True innovation begins with market need, succeeds through collaboration, and really doesn’t count until you get paid.
A key finding of the ACS Presidential Task Force report “Innovation, Chemistry, and Jobs” (www.acs.org/creatingjobs) was that start-ups and small to medium-sized companies create about 3 million jobs per year, in contrast to the 2.5 million that are lost in large companies. It’s clear that the role of the entrepreneur in job creation is not only essential but also has been the key to robust economic growth, even in times of recession. In the middle of the deep downturn of 1973–74, the following companies were start-ups: FedEx, Microsoft, Oracle, and Southwest Airlines.
So in these uncertain times, how do we win? Consider the following facts: (1) The U.S. has the best research universities in the world. (2) Vast sums of angel and venture capital are available. California, for example, has more venture capital than any country (except, of course, the U.S.). (3) The U.S. has a long tradition of innovation driven by science and technology. (4) Centuries of U.S. entrepreneurship have led to the great companies of today.
Most of the start-ups in the past several decades have been in biotechnology, driven by the continuing requirement for new medicines to treat myriad unmet medical needs. However, consider the key challenges that face our planet today. Chemistry is a critical component of potential solutions, and innovation in the chemical enterprise has never been better! Opportunities to affect human health through new medicines and medical devices; increase crop yields; develop alternative energy and cleantech; improve energy storage, battery technologies, communication, and electronics; address the potable-water challenge and climate change; and invent advanced materials—all of these demand the application of chemistry across this palette of global opportunities. Even today, 96% of all industrial processes have a chemical component, requiring improved processes as well as products—all solved by disruptive or sustaining innovation throughout the chemical enterprise.
In this environment of new realities, called by some the new normal, in which expectations, threats, and opportunities have been reset, the ACS Presidential Task Force on innovation drew four conclusions.
◾ There is no intrinsic structural reason to believe that chemistry start-ups could not prosper, even in difficult economic times.
◾ There is an opportunity for the chemical enterprise to rebuild its leadership position through disruptive technology, enabled by innovative start-ups.
◾ Early-stage companies provide a promising opportunity to create new jobs for innovative young chemists and seasoned professionals alike.
◾ There are major opportunities for ACS to facilitate entrepreneurship and enable the creation of new companies, thereby creating high-quality careers for U.S. chemists.
The task force also made four recommendations.
◾ Help entrepreneurs create jobs by facilitating more affordable access to key resources such as business acumen, human resources, financing, and mentorship.
◾ Improve the business environment for start-ups by increasing advocacy of relevant policies at the federal and state levels.
◾ Partner with academic institutions to promote awareness of career options that involve entrepreneurship.
◾ Publicize the challenges and successes of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in the chemical enterprise.
Indeed, implementation of all of these recommendations has begun. In particular, the ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative, moving beyond its pilot stage, is an important advance and provides a resource center for budding entrepreneurs. These programs are designed to help start-ups overcome the barriers that exist en route to obtaining the all-important seed funding that launches a start-up company.
The opportunities for chemical innovation have never been better, and ACS is ready, willing, and able to assist its members to be significant participants in bringing important inventions forward as true innovation. Society will reap the benefits of this innovation, enabled by entrepreneurship, as ACS continues to drive forward its vision of “Improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.