The Moment In-Between

Here’s a neat essay by Chris Newfield that looks at the elements of innovation that underlie the development of Google from a snatch in a dream to global information and advertising silverback.

One of the things that has fascinated me is this: in the weeks after a research event (an epiphany like an invention or discovery or nifty data set) there is an urge to chart a course toward something “commercial”. In whatever register, it’s something of a-rush-the-trough idea that loves expediency and opportunity. As soon as there is a report of epiphany, the primary effort of university “technology transfer” is to rush to the market to find “commercial value,” or at least to make an effort to poke the market, or at least make a show of making an effort (much easier). But why? Why would such haste, even haste made orderly (or, say, compulsory) have anything useful to do with an overall effort to match an epiphany with a market? Especially if the markets one really desires (transformational innovation) from university research don’t even exist.

Once one has got to a market, as in the case with Google, one can go back and construct a narrative account. That account will feature the key events and string them together to form a beginning, middle, and end, with the end necessarily being what we see today, but perhaps with a new sense of what the next key event might be in the narrative going forward. But it won’t do to think that it would be more efficacious to skip the uncertainty that links key events and go directly at trying to make such a narrative “true”. That is one doesn’t start by requiring that investigators report all dreams so these can be selected for ones that lead to the next step of being assigned to a thoughtful advisor, and so on. The narrative happens later, with what we might call a “later reason”. Not the one (if there is one) that motivates the next event that will turn out to be “key” but rather the narrative is constructed from a reason that seems to be the best plausible link by which to construct the narrative.

When is the appropriate time to try to trigger a “key” event in the developing narrative around any research epiphany? Is it good policy to say, we really don’t care to wonder about it, instead we will say the next “key” event will be, say, university ownership and an offer of the epiphany for market value?

In our IP practice, we had two ideas–“don’t go out too soon” and “sell while you can, you are not for all markets”. Somewhere in between is the uncertainty that says, there’s a place for a regularized effort such as selling to consumers, or providing a service to the research community, or building a formal standard. What I don’t know, and perhaps no-one does, is what triggers that moment in between. I am pretty sure, however, it isn’t helped by compulsory monopolicy.

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