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"Entrepreneurial Contributions to Science, Engineering, Technology and the U.S. Economy"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, Technite 5.0 Keynote Address
Roanoke, VA
May 13, 2004

Good evening everyone. I am pleased to join this talented and eclectic group of people who get things done. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss with you "Entrepreneurial Contributions to Science, Engineering, Technology and the U.S. Economy."

Since the dawn of civilization, forward thinkers have been essential to the progress of a nation, and ours is no exception. Visionary thinkers and venture supporters have been vital forces propelling our industrial progress.

Entrepreneurs put ideas to work and thus are a critical element for innovation if we, as a nation, aspire to continued success. The competition from China and elsewhere is just the beginning of a global economic pattern that will become ubiquitous. To prosper on this playing field we need to be a paradigm ahead, that is, to reach the next dimension of capacity such that there is no competition.

Constant change, accelerated progress, and increased expectations are emblematic of this new time. One thing is certain – this trend of scientific, technological, and societal transformation will escalate, and while much of what lies ahead is beyond predictability, we can, in the words of Peter Drucker "look out the window and see what's visible but not yet seen." In other words, if we are astute we can anticipate well. This capability requires that we are well informed about what is, that we continually focus on what could be, and that we take entrepreneurial risk to bring ideas to fruition. Of course, without a continually refreshed stack of ideas, there is nothing to bring to fruition. Thus, a symbiosis among the idea makers and entrepreneurs is an imperative.

Entrepreneurs are the bridges between the present and the future. The skills they bring to the melting pot of innovation include a comprehensive understanding of our society's structure, infrastructure and nuances; the present state and future potential of science and engineering; and the creativity and outlook to transform our current situation into the potential that awaits us. This is a formidable portfolio.

In a marketplace economy, entrepreneurs are the disruptive agents of Schumpeter's "creative destruction." Their putting new knowledge to use for things that are new and different literally defines innovation. Robust innovation lifts us to a dimension beyond competition, raising our prospects for wealth creation of great magnitude.

Innovation moves us forward earnestly, if hand-in-glove with fresh science and engineering knowledge. Discovery and innovation are the twin pillars of 21st century progress. Coupled together, they offer the potential for an era of breathtaking transformation.

Of course, this is a tall order and may feel daunting, but however elusive innovation may feel, it is not an abstract force. Rather, it's what people do to drive change.

Innovators break the "rules." It may be a leap of faith to trust them, but trust them we must, or we suffer the quagmire of the status quo. Their stretch to realize new ideas, like all revolutions, alter the fabric of society. Innovators apply knowledge to tasks that are new and different keeping us fresh and moving forward.

Our nation's need for highest performance in every sector is expanding. In creating his tome, The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush, in a May 31, 1945 letter to the Chairs of the four Committees he had chartered to help him in his task, wrote about the covenant of "[s]tability of [research] support" from the commonweal, justified by the consequent "healthy flow of new scientific knowledge," resulting in an increase of "new products and industries and jobs, and in the flowering of scientific talent." He was setting our compass "over the horizon" big time. Based on his vision, NSF was founded in 1950.

We have watched with great satisfaction, the subsequent growth and development of our nation's Science, Engineering and Technology ("S, E & T") enterprise. The investment in R&D of the past half-century gives ample testimony to the progress made in bringing benefits to the nation and its citizens.

Warmed by a genuine sense of satisfaction, we are in a position to look toward the future and ask, "What next?" In answering this question, we should be aware of two characteristics that will determine how well we are able to meet the challenge of innovation in our 21st century world: how adept we are in anticipating the future, and how wise we are in shaping it to our ends.

Looking back, we are struck above all by how startling and visionary the ideas were that shaped our nation's R&D enterprise – and equally by how much we take it for granted today!

We are so steeped now in the rhetoric of "innovation" that it's something of a struggle just to imagine how little salience it had two decades ago.

That's an indication of the extraordinary transformations that have swept through our society and our lives during the past two decades. Changes that we scarcely could have imagined 20 years ago are now our common currency. Today, new technologies – and whole industries – emerge in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Many threads intertwined to produce the innovative tapestry that is our nation's S, E & T investment. I'll mention just three that will be familiar to you all.

The first is the realization that universities and their science and engineering faculty and students are critical resources that can make a valuable contribution to economic development – much the same way that agricultural, industrial and natural resources did in the 19th and 20th centuries. New knowledge at the frontier is our new capital, our engine of innovation.

The second is the notion that partnerships – among academe, business and government – can speed the transformation of new knowledge into new products, processes and services, and in their wake produce new jobs, create wealth, and improve our social well being. The wise advice of Woodrow Wilson applies here. "I not only use all the brains that I have," he said, "but all the brains I can borrow."

Third, and perhaps the most radical of the three, is the idea that we can design partnerships and institutions to achieve common, long-term goals – in this instance, to bolster economic development and raise the standard of living and security of the nation.

These three conceptual innovation parameters – knowledge as capital, partnerships as transformational, and design as intent – are the heart and soul of what drives today's S, E & T investment.

In anticipating the future, we must recognize that civilization is on the brink of a new industrial world order. The big winners in the increasingly fierce global scramble for supremacy will not be those who simply make commodities faster and cheaper than the competition. They will be those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition.

How will we get from here to there? Standing at the nexus of accelerating scientific and technological change, we are expected to foster progress toward a daunting array of ends – creating new knowledge, products, and systems; stimulating economic development; creating wealth and jobs; sharpening the nation's competitive and leading edges; raising our prospects for more creative and satisfying lives; caring for the environment; and strengthening the security of our nation and its myriad infrastructures.

With this as a backdrop, I would like to examine some important questions with you. What is the essence of innovation? What attributes do innovators and entrepreneurs exhibit? How do we encourage innovation?

Inspiration is a key characteristic of innovation. In the United States, we have admired and even been enchanted by inspired entrepreneurs.

Life magazine cited our most famous inventor - entrepreneur, Thomas Alva Edison, as the peak achiever in the last millennium. This non-stop "idea-to-reality machine" beat out queens and kings, scientists and mathematicians, and writers and artists in the Life magazine competition.

The "Wizard of Menlo Park" was number one in a list of a hundred leaders and thinkers that included Elisabeth I, Galileo, Pablo Picasso, Helen Keller, and Albert Einstein.

Born in 1847, Edison radically changed global society by transforming electricity from a novelty to a household and commercial necessity. Talk about entrepreneurial spirit, Edison cleverly garnered critical investment from a group of Manhattan "movers and shakers" by inviting them to his home and lab for a weekend. However, despite his stellar record of over a thousand patents, Edison believed that, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

In any large-scale societal change, there is a lot of perspiration in the carry-through, but the spark comes from the inspiration. Inspiration is that chaotic and complex moment where past and present knowledge combine to synthesize an idea that stands on the edge of the future. Imagining something is where it starts.

If our goal is to instill entrepreneurship in those we educate, then encouraging them to use their imaginations, to be visionaries, and to think creatively is critical. We must teach them to think against the grain; swim upstream; violate the norm.

Albert Einstein, believed that "imagination" was the key to his work. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Imagination in the hand of entrepreneurs brings the ability to connect the results of research to society, i.e., to envision. The ability to understand the larger context in which we work - the sector, the society, and even the time in history, the moment in civilization, is crucial to any form of entrepreneurial leadership. Learning to read the larger context provides a path for imagining the future.

Part of our task is to mentor others in scanning the big picture for the relevant signals. We must develop acumen for such thinking in our nation's students. We cannot graduate talented young professionals with supremely specialized expertise that exists in a vacuum.

The ability to read the subtle signals will often make the difference between our nation being the industrial leader or laggard. Reading the tealeaves, so to speak, is not just for mystics anymore. It's a job for mentors, managers, entrepreneurs, and every kind of leader.

The astute "readers of the context" and "imaginers of possible futures" have proven to us that envisioning is a worthwhile endeavor.

Envisioning combined with risk-taking is a supercharged combination on the personal level as well as on the level of the economy.

In 1999, the Economist highlighted Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, in an article on innovators. Schumpeter developed a rule-breaking theory of economics in the 1940s in which he described a "creative destruction" of industrial cycles.1

As Schumpeter described it, a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted by technological innovation; that is, disruption is the normal state of a healthy, vibrant economy. The trick to turning this process into success is having a rational hand on the tiller, with a capacity to perform no matter how the frontier may move.

Something new and exciting is happening in the 21st century that can help us foster this capability. The borders between discovery, learning, and innovation are blurring.

Increasingly, scientists and engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs are working across many different disciplines, fields and even sectors to make the connections that lead to deeper insights and more creative solutions.

We look ahead to exquisite but practical improvements in everything from drug delivery systems to renewable energy resources. I like to think of this as "creative transformation" - the flip side of the coin of "creative destruction."

Focusing on creative transformation can help us act intelligently as we move ahead. It can cultivate a benevolent approach to robust change.

The question for us is: how do we mobilize such an effort? A critical founding stone is to ingrain early on in education that failure is a part of the learning process – if students fear failure they will surely avoid changing the status quo.

As students move on, we need to educate them beyond their technical expertise. The best technical training must be combined with understanding how that expertise fits into the larger societal environment, into our overriding national goals, and indeed, into the goals of other nations.

Today, the trend in science and engineering research, technology development and business operations is much more cross-boundary centric. Many disciplines are converging in surprising ways to generate the new knowledge needed for the increasingly complex challenges we face as a society.

Today's graduates must be capable of integrating knowledge from a variety of disciplines and working with industry-partners to advance that knowledge into innovations.

Engineers, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, and workers at every level must be able to see functionally beyond the boundaries of their own fields. In the past, when the tools for discovery and application were rudimentary, innovative progress across the frontier of science and engineering was possible only by parsing the frontier into doable pieces that we called disciplines. But today's increasingly exotic tools allow a more holistic attack along the frontier.

If we want to change the way the workforce thinks, and increase its creativity, innovation, and boundary-crossing abilities, we must ingrain these ideas, while students are on the path to becoming the workforce we need them to be.

The business community has a large role in creating the 21st century workforce. Connections and partnerships must be made in a joint effort to draw in and excite young workers.

Together, we need to educate today’s students and tomorrow's future entrepreneurs to think strategically and holistically. They need to be able to read patterns and trends from the larger context to envision the future. And, in particular, integrative, cross-boundary-educated, visionary engineers and scientists are critical components to success in our age of complexity.

In the larger sense, innovation depends upon a synergistic set of interactions that includes not only science, engineering and technology, but social, political and economic interactions as well.

We need new arrangements that foster the kind of integration that supports innovation, and the social and economic well being it enables.

If innovation is at the heart of progress, then we need to understand the skills that foster the capacity for risk taking, for imagination, and a tolerance for unfamiliar and uncertain territory. That in turn will mean that our institutions must evolve to cultivate these skills.

Innovation and competitive entrepreneurship will always remain an enduring quest, an on-going process. There is no peak that we can reach that will assure continuing success. It is not a matter of sticking to the task for the long haul. It is the "haul."

We will always need to keep improving the process with fresh ideas and a fundamental commitment. We will need to break the right rules and take the right risks. It will be demanding, exciting, and a bit precarious, as the unknown always is.

Entrepreneurs will have to be effective collaborators, innovators, risk takers, and communicators, working across shifting boundaries, and embracing diversity. They will need to know the human and social dimensions of technology. Our social and economic progress depends upon it. All of you carry the excitement and the responsibility to make it happen. The contribution of entrepreneurs is to tie the whole package of ideas, knowledge, workforce and institutions together into a productive engine of economic growth. That's not only a big job-but a worthy goal and I am certain that you here in Roanoke can carry this through!

Best wishes for the future and congratulations to Technite 5.0's Awardees.

1 From February 20, 1999 article in the Economist on innovation.
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