Just how many Termans do ya got there?

I was looking at some accounts of collaboration and found this wonderful symposium paper by AnnaLee Saxenian. It’s from 1995, but as it talks about the history of Silicon Valley, it is ever much insightful and relevant as ever to regions trying to develop their technology economies.

One point the paper makes is how much Silicon Valley owes to the conditions set by Fred Terman, who Saxenian calls a “brilliant teacher.”  That recalls the statements made about Karl Paul Link, the leader of the team that developed warfarin. No doubt there are plenty of cool things made by academics who are not brilliant teachers, and some brilliant teachers who don’t even try to make cool things.  

Terman helps HP start. Terman builds university research parks. Terman gives talks to industry folks. Terman starts industry affiliates programs to get industry folks on campus. Terman works out a way for industry folks to pursue advanced degrees part time while at Stanford.

By opening up the boundaries between the university and local technology firms, and between the firms themselves, Frederick Terman created a social and technical infrastructure in Silicon Valley that supports a highly decentralized industrial structure. In keeping with Terman’s priorities, the Silicon Valley community glorifies entrepreneurial risk-taking and individual competition, while simultaneously practicing open information exchange and what one observer described as “a surprising degree of cooperation.”

The thing to keep in mind is that a lot of what we have comes from individual insight and effort. This gets lost in abstractions about the economy and metrics about this and that, as if counting the number of patents means something, but one (1) Fred Terman doesn’t.  This also gets lost in institutional processes, which cannot bear to treat anyone special, because that would be unfair to the others, would disrupt the efficiency of the process itself, requires special authorization, and if it is to be done should be done properly, for the safety and well being of all.

Saxenian describes the Silicon Valley situation in a nutshell:

Many Silicon Valley firms are started by engineers who are frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to pursue new ideas within the region’s established companies. The typical start-up brings together individuals who may have worked together or gone to school together, who know one another by reputation or who are introduced by friends. They begin with a technical idea or a product for which they seek funding from local venture capitalists, who themselves are often veterans of local industry and thus can provide hands-on operating experience and networks of contacts as well as capital to new ventures. And they rely on the region’s rich infrastructure of specialist suppliers and service providers to get their business off the ground.

The institutional process, the “strategic decision” that something has “commercial value” is part of the problem, not the hoped-for next step. You cannot improve it by trying new ways to be part of the problem. Institutional processes are all the more challenging for a university running a compulsory program of ownership. Further, in Silicon Valley, teams of people move together. It’s not an “entrepreneurial” faculty member begging for approval, but often a set of people who come together through social networking, not processes. The strength of the personal referral is often unappreciated. University policies limiting “consulting” (while important for any number of institutional-rational reasons) work against forming the critical mass of faculty, staff, students, and others who might rapidly assemble the capabilities needed to start a company.

A third element is that the investors that these teams work with are themselves veterans of the industries the startups are working in. Not just rich folks with other people’s money, but savvy about where to hit the industry next, and how hard, and with what. They are not always right, but they often are able to land the punch, where other sorts of investors, trying to imitate, lack the underlying sense of the territory. It’s not enough to count how many dollars are being invested in startups–one has to have some sense of whether those dollars result in anything–new products, for instance. Thus, in addition to the number of unlicensed patents in a university’s portfolio, a second indicator of economic impact is the number of reported first commercial sales based on recent inventions. Without new products, how is it innovation?

This is one reason why I don’t put much stock in the AUTM licensing survey. It reports measures of activity, but not outcomes, and not the costs. It doesn’t report the total unlicensed portfolio of inventions, the number of licensed inventions without a first commercial sale or even practical application, or the number reporting a first commercial sale of new product. It doesn’t report the total cost to operate the office, nor the net cost in patent legal work, nor the time from request for license to signing of license.

Without outcomes, activity measures are smoke. And when there are outcomes, it is not all that clear that these can be attributed to the officially sanctioned activity measures. One can chant and throw sticks in the air every day, and sooner or later there will be a solar eclipse, but one doesn’t cause the other (at least, that’s what I believe, and I’m sticking with it). One can spend time trying to improve the chanting, and get better sticks to throw. No matter, eh?  Outcomes are the result of individuals taking action, and in part getting lucky to go along with their ideas and capabilities, with their luck being helped along by others who offer timely assistance, and want to see, and be a part of, that success. That’s what a breakthrough network is. It’s not formal institutional contracts, patents filed, and licenses in aggregate, with processes that aim to treat everyone the same (as if that’s actually *equitable*!).

Really, this *is a model* for innovation. It starts with individuals. It may require only one (1) Terman-like person to map the space for collaboration, innovation, and development.  No amount of institutional process or imitation or aspiration is going to get one there.

When folks talk IP policies, invariably they mean “ownership.” But IP doesn’t matter if it doesn’t end up attached to something that gets used, and for that the core of any IP policy is how to find the people who will inspire and connect and create. This will not be the ones who wait for permission from patent licensing minorlings every time they want to do something.  An IP policy that restricts institutional claims to ownership, rather than aims to expand those claims, would be just the sort of thing that opens up personal initiative, creates reasons to reciprocate, and opens up the creative collaboration a university community has to offer.


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