Obama needs more than a CTO

Happy New Year, everyone! A lot to report, but first on the list is to welcome students back from break.  Lots of cool innovation courses going on this semester…so I look forward to some awesome comments and posts.

Ok…First up. Cool rumblings in the US Federal Government. If we look at what’s going on (and I’m NOT talking about recession), there are interesting developments with implications for companies, entire industries, local regional development, and for universities.

According to recent reports, and directly from President elect Obama’s website, he will appoint the world’s first governmental Chief Technology Officer (CTO) “to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st Century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.” Many, many, many posts speculating on who should be appointed to fill those shoes, given the visionary characteristics that must be possessed by this person, and the migration of the role from the Chief Information Officer role that the Bush administration appointed, who did not use the role for much beyond the defensive posture of monitoring cyberspace for security breaches.

Venturebeat notes that “Obama’s CTO, by contrast, would ensure government officials hold open meetings, broadcast live webcasts of those meetings, and use blogging software, wikis and open comments to communicate policies with Americans, according to the plan… The plan extends Obama’s previous advocacy for more open decision making in government.”

Interestingly, others in the world of innovation are picking up on this cool label of CTO and migrating it to what they, and I, would love to see. And that’s beyond the vision that Obama has so far articulated. It reaches in another direction..that of National Competitiveness, and increasing the standard of living for the entire global economy.

I found this in Forbes: “Think about what you really want in a CTO,” John Doerr, venture capitalist of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers suggests. The U.S. needs clean energy, more students studying science and engineering, more funding of basic research, a “restored” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and plans to extend working visas to graduate students who complete their degrees in the U.S., Doerr said. Who could best translate those objectives into action? Doerr names two people, Bill Joy, the former co-founder of Sun Microsystems and Danny Hillis, a long-time inventor, who currently runs a research firm, Applied Minds in Glendale, CA. Both are inventors, serial entrepreneurs, value creators, new business creation experts.  That’s quite a different approach to the job. But truly necessary.  Others are chiming in and their point is that we need someone to stimulate innovation…major innovation, in this country. And by that I mean innovation…more than R&D. Actual commercialization of cool technologies for breakthrough impact which will stimulates more jobs, better standard of living, reduction of poverty…all that.

So…the next cool thing I noted was an article on the NYtimes blog. In early December, Andrew C. Revkin, commented on a white paper by sociologist Fred Block  at UC Davis and his graduate student Matthew Keller, who are proposing that Obama create a cabinet level Department of Innovation (!!!!) to:

raise the profile of current federal innovation efforts and improve their coordination. This new Department would also

  • Accelerate the deployment of new technologies that meet such critical national needs as energy independence and reducing greenhouse gases.
  • Elevate the need to include innovation spending in an economic stimulus package so we can build for the short term and the long term simultaneously.
  • Create a new financing mechanism that would direct capital flows directly into the small firms that are the core of the innovation economy.

Revkin, the NYTimes writer, leaves the reader with a list of other sites to view to learn of an underappreciated federal system that actually supports R&D and innovation.  But interestingly again, a third recent occurrence has caught my attention.

Did you know about senate bill 3078? A friend, and co-conspirator on building innovation infrastructures called to let us know about it at the Lally school. Introduced last session by Senators Susan Collins, R, Maine,  Hillary Clinton, D, NY and Evan Bayh, D, Indiana, the National Innovation and Job Creation Act of 2008 is right up Professor Block and Mr. Keller’s alley. The Bill proposes the creation of a National Innovation Council (within the Executive office of the President) to improve the coordination of innovation activities among industries in the United States. Among other purposes, the council and its support structure would assist companies with

  • Technology transfer from laboratories to businesses,
  • Joint industry-university research partnerships
  • Technology based entrepreneurship
  • Industrial modernization through adoption of best practice technologies and business practices
  • Incumbent worker training.

In addition, the Council’s responsibilities would be

  • To promote  (and help fund) regional cluster innovation
  • To create methods of measuring innovation and productivity.
  • To carry out a program of research on innovation and productivity

The National Innovation Council Board, it was proposed, would be composed of 11 members from the fields of business, economic development, health care, applied sciences, engineering, education or public affairs, but all of whom have demonstrated an appreciation of the value of innovation.  In addition, an Industry research council was proposed, and would be comprised of at least 5 for-profit entities, whose purpose is to advance innovation.

This council will take over responsibilities of many of NIST’s  (National Institute of Science and Technology) programs, and of the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation program,  Industry-University Cooperative Research Center program and Engineering Research Center program.

Why, you ask, is this needed? Why is Professor Block and Mr Keller advancing the same thought?  Why must Obama go beyond a CTO to a Chief Innovation Officer???? Well, if you’ve been reading this blog, you know. Companies themselves are beginning to see the need for a senior level officer and support function to ensure that the innovation agenda of a large corporation remains a priority, is resourced, and that the firm builds capabilities in creating and commercializing major, breakthrough innovations.

Why shouldn’t countries behave in the same way? While it’s true, as Revkin mentions in his piece, that most breakthroughs that have occurred have done so with the help of federal funding (in the 12 projects we studied in depth over a period of six years, 9 of them received government funds…!) …how many breakthroughs never see the light of day because we have gaps in the infrastructure for commercializing them? Only with a coordinated effort does this occur.

We can fund all of the basic research we want, but commercializing it is where the hiccup happens.  In companies, in government funded work, and in university research.

P.S. This bill never became law. This bill was proposed in a previous session of Congress. Sessions of Congress last two years, and at the end of each session all proposed bills and resolutions that haven’t passed are cleared from the books. Members often reintroduce bills that did not come up for debate under a new number in the next session.

Last Action: Jun 3, 2008: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Let’s see what Obama does…


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