10 November 2011

Where does the future of American innovation lie?

Our department chair send out a personal email telling us to attend a special event.  A prominent former head of a major government agency was visiting and the chair, being a personal friend, persuaded him to come talk to grad students and postdocs about careers.

As expected, he was opinionated but sincere and charismatic.  He thought that American innovation will come from startups, not government or academia.  In his opinion, government is paralyzed by interpersonal politics and it is so difficult to get grants in academia (average age of first NIH grant is 43).  Scientists, especially postdocs, are encouraged to do incremental work, rather than something revolutionary.

I asked a question about why it seemed like all the startups were internet software companies.  He said it has to do with scale.  It is much easier to be an internet startup than a startup that has to build something (e.g. clean energy).  The internet startup only has to pay for office space, computers, and salaries.  Since their product is available on internet, there is a huge multiplication factor, as everyone has a computer and a smartphone.  A clean energy startup could take ten years to become profitable.  The key to building a successful startup is that you need to beat a well-established company by an order-of-magnitude, whether that is price or efficiency.

He talked a little about his experience working in government.  He was rather frustrated with how much money is wasted in space science and exploration.  The problem is that the American public doesn't believe anyone should die in exploration or war.  They have to spend money to ensure the safety of astronauts to an extreme degree.  That's why he eventually quit.  Because the stress of being responsible for space shuttle launches was overwhelming.

Yet, he though highly of people who worked in government.  He told us rather emphatically, "If the president asks you to work for him, you should say yes!"  As the discussion wound down, he said "Let me end by telling this story... " (Such a polished, prepared guy that he had a heart-warming story for the end.)  He went to USSR in 1991 to talk with the Soviet space agency.  While he was there, the coup d'état started.  There was shooting and tanks everywhere.  He became alarmed and tried to contact the American embassy.  They said they couldn't help because people were shooting into the windows of the building.  He tried to contact the White House and ask the president what to do.  Meanwhile, he found the pilot and asked him if he could fly them out.  The pilot said that if he took everyone, including all the staff, they wouldn't have enough fuel to get to Helsinki.  He asked the pilot to take out the seats and they found that this reduction of weight would be sufficient.  Eventually, he was told that the president would appreciate it if he stayed as a show of support for democracy.  He apprised his staff of the situation and told them it was their personal choice whether to go or stay.  Everyone stayed.  Then he asked the Soviet space agency director if they were still going to hold their discussion.  The director acted like it was any other day and they got the deal done.  If you're not a complete cynic, I would call that a beautiful patriotic moment.

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