Monday, July 12, 2010

Six Artificial Barriers to Startup Innovation

A few months ago I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Roy McAlister, who has been a prolific inventor for thirty years, and a recognized authority on the use of hydrogen as the ‘fuel’ of the 21st century. While he still remains upbeat, I can sense the frustration that comes from years of facing barriers to innovation.

In his world, and many others that entrepreneurs inhabit, the problem is not a lack of ideas or technology. It’s not even a lack of money or opportunity, but a whole series of artificial constraints which seem to be getting more prevalent rather than less. Here are some of the key ones I see:

  1. People are too comfortable. One of my favorite sayings is that “Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level gets high enough.” In Roy’s world, most people proclaim that we must do something about global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels, but the real impact to them is only a minor annoyance so far. People tend to complain about minor annoyances, but spend money on entertainment.

  2. The inertia of infrastructures. It’s easy to see value in electric, natural gas, or hydrogen engines, but these all need a huge new investment in service stations, maintenance, training, and manufacturing. Replacing the existing infrastructure is painful to its constituents (oil companies and auto companies), so it will take generations.

  3. Government regulations. Especially after the banking debacle a couple of years ago, everyone seems to want more government regulations. Even the best ones take years to get through our democratic process, and take even more years to change when innovation would suggest changes. The result is minimal innovation.

  4. Risk avoidance. You never get anywhere unless you take a chance. Is it just me, or are more and more people afraid to challenge the “status quo?” Risk aversion has in many cases now moved to the extreme, called ‘entitlement’. No risk, guaranteed reward.

  5. “Silos” of knowledge. Areas of study in many domains have become so narrow and deep, that experts fail to see the forest for the trees. This is rooted in our educational system, but extends beyond. In other words, universities should be preparing students to think and problem solve innovatively (outside the box), rather than using a microscope.

  6. Low persistence levels. Thomas Edison failed more than ten thousand times before finding the right design of the light bulb. Challenged by his contemporaries, Edison soberly responded: "I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won't work." Some Gen-Y’ers have been raised by doting parents who tried to protect their kids from even one failure. That does not lead to innovation.

The world needs more innovation, and I’m looking to the entrepreneurs out there for the energy, vision, leadership and hustle to make it happen. They should be striking partnerships with inventors like Dr. Roy McAlister to find the limits of technology that can be commercialized (see Roy’s book for examples, “The Solar Hydrogen Civilization: The Future of Energy Is the Future of Our Global Economy”).

The greatest thing about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to innovate and do what you want the way you want. You can connect with clients, friends, colleagues, and competitors on your own terms to figure out if you are doing things right or need to make changes.

Don’t let the artificial constraints described above slow you down. The cost of delay usually exceeds the cost of mistakes. We need you!

Marty Zwilling



1 comment:

  1. If it were easy everyone would be doing it! There are legitimate concerns in new ventures; most of them fail. It is important to get educated before moving forward.

    Delay has real costs, so don't hesitate. Do take time to educate and evaluate. Depending on the application, mistakes can be fatal. If a calculator breaks too easily, it's a simple warranty issue. If a new car seat breaks, it could kill a child. Besides the moral and traumatic implications, that would kill a business.

    The main thing is to understand risks so that we can manage them. Don't risk what you can't afford to lose.

    Do your homework, and start early, because that is the only sure way to accelerate a project.