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Where Do We Need Innovation?

Last night's State of the Union message flipped quickly from the heartwarming Sputnik moment of our generation to the budget-cutting demanded by this generation's reality. The President said all the right things about innovation, but he was limited in his view of what areas of our lives most need it.

Those of us who follow both innovation and politics know that most of the budget is not discretionary. The "untouchables" include Medicare, Social Security, and Defense. The "discretionary" includes everything necessary to win the future: education, clean energy, new infrastructure, and high speed transportation.

The President believes we should innovate in those areas. And there is already much innovation happening there. I've just read 104 proposals in response to the Arizona Commerce Authority's Innovation Challenge. They ranged from optics to aerospace, from materials science to education software, from pharmaceutical research to solar energy.

And that's just in one state. Imagine what's going on elsewhere.

Of course we should fund that innovation. Much of it is already funded by SBIR grants, the best and nearly sole way of getting technology out of the lab and into a business. SBIR grants can be expanded, perhaps made more inclusive, to fund transportation, innovative infrastructure, and smarter power grids.

But where do we really need innovation? In the areas of the "untouchables." Where is the proposal to find a new way to house or feed the elderly that costs less than what we spend now? Where are the innovative end-of-life treatment proposals?

Where are the new ways to deliver healthcare? Why are transformative ways to deliver primary care and run medical offices having so much trouble getting off the ground? Where is the innovation in the insurance industry?

These proposals are out there as well. New forms of communal living and remote monitoring can drive down costs for the sick and the elderly. New negotiation and defense strategies can help cut the defense budget. (In all fairness, the military has done better at re-tooling for the future than almost any other sector, since DARPA was founded during the signature Sputnik moment of the last generation.)

I am in favor of cutting the expenses of the old (not people, but methodologies), to allow research in the new. Perhaps the next innovation challenge should be for technology to solve social problems. After all, a society that can support its citizens in a healthy, productive manner throughout their lives will win every war, simply by outliving the enemy.

The "prize" we as an country "keep our eyes on" should be innovation in how we live as a nation. How our communities function, and how we care for each other.

When we were founded, we we were innovative. How? In the way we governed ourselves. How about some innovation there as well?

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  • Don Kachman

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I also agree that innovation in how we govern is as critical to the success of the United States as technological innovation. The SBIR program is an excellent program, but its ability to be expanded is restricted by the fundamental fact that an Agency's SBIR program is actually a set aside for small business of 2.5% of that Agency's budget for outside research and development. A true expansion of the SBIR concept to non-traditional research areas would require a new program with new funding, or the establishment of research and development budgets for programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Both are intriguing ideas. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is up for re-authorization and the time is now to communicate these ideas to congress.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Don Kachman