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Science expert explores process of innovation

Pre-eminent science policy expert Lewis Branscomb, Trinity '47, explored the gap between inventions and innovations in a lecture at the School of Law Thursday.


    Branscomb said the process by which a high-tech commercial invention proceeds to the marketplace--and thus becomes an innovation, according to his definition of the term--is relatively unexplored. He likened it to a "Valley of Death" or "Darwinian Sea," and spent a large portion of his presentation showing how idea sources, geography and funding sources help illuminate the dark chasm between invention and innovation.


    The first step is hatching the idea of a promising commercial invention. Branscomb identified individual entrepeneurs, universities, government-fueled research, so-called "angel" investors with novel business models or market opportunities and corporate spin-outs as the most common idea sources.


    Whether anything comes of these ideas, he said, is partly a function of geography. Locations such as Silicon Valley and Boston are hotbeds for innovation while other places, like Albany/Schenectady/Troy, N.Y., founder in comparison. He pointed to the preponderance of trusted financing networks and a more innovative spirit as geographical keys to innovation.


    Funding for the transition from invention to innovation comes from three principal sources: corporate seed venture capital, the federal government and angel investors. He said these angel investors are often experienced technology entrepeneurs who use their wealth and financing contacts to greatly aid younger inventors, making them particularly important in the process of innovation. Regardless of the source, the would-be innovator must convince all relevant parties that the idea will work and then must back up the claim with data.


    As he projected a giant "R & D" onto a wall, Branscomb described what he felt was the most important part of the research and development of high-tech goods. "Everybody talks about R & D. But it really isn't about the 'R,' and it really isn't about the 'D,'" he said. "It's about the '&.'"


    Branscomb is the Aetna professor of public policy and corporate management emeritus at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a former chair of the National Science Board, a former director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program in the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School and a former vice president and chief scientist of IBM Corporation.


    "Today, wherever science policy is discussed, Lewis Branscomb is there giving his wise counsel," said law professor Jerome Reichman in an introduction to Branscomb's speech, which was the fourth in the annual Meredith and Kip Frey Lecture in Intellectual Property series.


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