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The Unbearable Lightness of Innovation

Submitted by on March 13, 2017 – 12:20 pmNo Comment

by Jim Lane (Biofuels Digest)  … I am reviewing the notes about so many companies in Stealth Mode, that you’d think it was a place, like Silicon Valley or Times Square.

Stealth Mode. It’s so fashionable, it ought to be worn on the runways this spring by the models of Paris.  No one will ever criticize you for it. In fact, they’ll praise you for being circumspect, and for holding off talking about a technology until there’s really something to talk about. Who could oppose such a logic?

But Stealth Mode is a company killer, because of the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation.

Markets are noisy with competing ideas, yet Stealth Mode is noisy, too. Stealth Mode doesn’t mean “talk to no one”. It simply means, talk to a few people. Co-investors, early-stage financiers, families and friends, friendly executives at companies that might be strategically useful. There’s all kinds of talking that goes on in Stealth Mode. The idea behind Stealth is not quietness, but control.

To the people who can help us — for example, someone we want to recruit for our company, we can’t stop talking about our great idea and its promise.

In Stealth Mode, we sign up employees, we raise capital, we set milestones to be achieved, we make progress in the lab — we shout to a very small community of supporters, but we are shouting. That’s Stealth Mode — it’s not about silence, but in limiting the audience for our noise.

As if we could Really Know the Direction Ventures Will Take

As if we could really know, at the outset, all the people, all the relationships, by which and through which a company will be successful, a technology will be successful. Imagine the people we might have talked to about the possibilities of investing a microwave oven, in stealth mode. Perhaps executives at consumer electronics companies, retailing firms, venture funds focused on consumer products. Yet, microwave oven technology was invented quite by accident when a researcher working with microwaves noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.

These partners, this pathway Must Be!

Who really must be our friends and allies?

We don’t always know where our technologies will take us. Fermentation technology wasn’t developed because of its fuel properties but because of its applications for food — yet, it was extended to fuels. By contrast, algae fermentation was developed to bring forward an affordable fuel, but has been extended now to foods and looks like it will be a big hit there.

Now, there’s fashionable idea that oil prices will be low forever to replace the idea that oil prices will have climbed into the stratosphere by 2014 and will never fall back to earth.

Today, we have a fashionable concern about depletion of aquifers, China’s intentions in the South China Sea, and genetically modified organisms, to name a few. A few of these become enduring concerns and spawn industries that fundamentally change society, not many.

But in Stealth Mode, you are practicing the Es Muss Sein! approach:

My technology must be liked by these people. It must be successful in this sector. It must be developed along this path. These investors must be interested in supporting this. The financial prospects must be as I have imagined them to be. The relationships I need must be accessible to me via the contacts I already have, or my stakeholders already have.

Truth be told, we know very little about where the future will take the market, or technologies, or people. What we have is not the Certainty of Progress of a Certain Type. But the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation. It may be that a certain idea will become successful. But there may well be developments in competing technologies, the economy, policy, finance, or supply chains that will make something impossible that once seemed inevitable. We invest hard dollars into soft conceptions of the future, and that is why Innovation has an Unbearable Lightness to it.

You come from the word of science, the world of changing feedstocks into foods, feed, fiber and fuel. So when you say “stoichiometry”, you mean something that is fundamental, discoverable, applicable, balanced, irrefutable and true. Something to lean on and depend on, in the pursuit of knowledge and in the practice of innovation. You come from the world of science — of certainty.

Yet you seek to act in the world of people, investments, and relationships, and fashionable ideas — the world of uncertainty.

If you find yourself unable to finance a game-changing technology, or to recruit people or government agencies or companies that should be allies — if progress is impeded, think about the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation.

Perhaps resolve yourself, this day, to do something different, to march not along the known path-lines based on your certainty of the applications of your ideas, or the companies it might serve, or the individuals it might appeal to — but along broader lines.

Talk up directions, rather than solutions, seek alignment, build coalitions, advertise the journey instead of the destination. People, in the end, invest in directions rather than people or ideas. Who, investing in Google 10 years ago, could have forecasted all the changes in personnel and technologies?

And, think about avoiding stealth mode, friend. I suspect it will do you more harm than good. Insofar as I know.  READ MORE

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