A More Effective Innovation Practice
Practice-focused innovation centers could help the United States translate federally funded research into tomorrow’s essential technologies.
To compete in the global marketplace, the United States needs to ensure government-funded breakthroughs in science and technology are translated into new and established business ecosystems. I refer to this type of innovation, which is initiated in academic research labs and moves into industry, as “pull through.” The United States now faces a trillion-dollar question: How does the country accelerate innovation pull through and also build and rebuild industrial ecosystems to bring that innovation into society while creating jobs here?
My answer is: with practice. By practice I mean practically oriented work that directly builds on basic research funded by the US government. The nation’s students and young researchers need more—and better—places to practice the concepts they are learning about to prepare to create pull through. Practice is not merely additional work, but the sort of work that extracts practical uses from new scientific insights, particularly technological applications and their commercialization. Practice thus entails transdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge integration to develop multiple proofs-of-concept into commercially viable products. I should remark at this point that practice, so conceptualized, is not a silver bullet. But it is, I believe, a crucial element that is currently lacking at US research institutions—even though the model has previously proved itself in enabling the US chip design industry during the 1980s.
To create a more integrated innovation ecosystem, one that starts in academic settings and leads into the marketplace, the federal government should create a nationwide network of collaborative environments dedicated to practice and designed to target technology areas of strategic interest to the United States. I propose we call these collaborative environments innovation centers for the practice of platform technologies.
A network of such dedicated research test beds, each devoted to a strategic enabling technology such as artificial intelligence, vehicular autonomy, gene editing, and future wireless technologies, can ensure that the United States remains on the cutting edge of such technologies, not only in the research, but also in their translation to societal use—creating both jobs and value here at home. Making these test beds into truly open innovation platforms will reduce the barrier to entry not only for people but also for innovative ideas.
Each practice-focused innovation center should be set up as a public–private partnership to bring industry, academia, government, and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories together around a single technology. This infrastructure needs to be “neutral territory” where researchers can interact with one another and with technologists who are working on related issues in industry, government offices, and national labs. The innovation centers will replace simply meeting at conferences and sharing results and would aim to empower US-based researchers to engage in mutually beneficial large-scale precompetitive collaborations, including the crucial practice of technology integration in real-world conditions.
Importantly, the innovation centers should be accessible to young researchers across the nation and not be limited to the tight circles of people who are directly funded by any specific research grant. The infrastructure should enable students who want to work in fields of strategic national interest. Such people will bring with them not just the technical talent but also the motivation and networks necessary to persist.
Access to the practice of technology fulfills a deep need in today’s students who earnestly want to see their work make a difference in society. Creating places that train scientists to translate their ideas means that the next generation of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will enter the US workforce with both specific technical training and more expansive practical perspectives. The alumni of these centers will be more likely to integrate their innovations into the fabric of the industries that hire them. At the same time, inculcating a practical orientation on newly minted researchers ought to realize greater value from US government-funded research expenditures in basic science, engineering, and technology.
Practicing the wireless technology of the future
The wireless technology of the future provides an opportunity to look more closely at how such practice-focused research infrastructure could work. The United States still leads in many of the areas of fundamental wireless research: the radio frequency coding modulation community in US universities is just one example. But as Paul Jacobs, the former CEO of Qualcomm, has pointed out, there are no longer any large-scale wireless technology infrastructure companies in the United States.
This deficit means that while the United States is funding and creating some of the most advanced research for tomorrow’s wireless technologies, the country does not have the full suite of commercial ecosystems necessary to move the funded-by-taxpayers, world-class wireless innovations into US wireless industries. Thus, the nation is not capturing enough of the value created with its research endeavors.
Here is where practice-focused research infrastructure for future wireless technologies could not only create pathways for commercialization and the rebuilding of US industry but also build safeguards to privacy and security infrastructure. The innovation centers would provide virtualized platforms that would allow a nationwide network of researchers from academia, industry, and government to interact in open, disaggregated modern architectures. One of the benefits of such collaborations would be unprecedented opportunities to demonstrate user equipment interoperability at “open hardware interfaces,” which are, by definition, standardized interfaces between hardware components created to ensure components from different manufacturers can talk to each other. Creating interoperability is crucial to making commercially successful components, but innovation centers would also be able to determine the privacy of security standards underlying this function. Thus the innovation test beds could create both data security and economic security at the same time.
This emphasis on open hardware and interoperability is not a new idea. In fact, the same strategy was employed at the beginning of the internet. Open innovation allowed a myriad of new hardware and software companies to enter the field, as well as stimulating a large number of application software packages; the architecture of the system encoded values of openness and flexibility that grew out of the culture that created them. Many of the early internet pioneers are still active in the computing field. Their expertise could be invaluable as the nation builds out this infrastructure.
Practice-focused research infrastructure centers would have the overarching goal of guiding innovation along a path that leads to more players being able to enter the wireless industry. In the absence of this national infrastructure, however, the threads that could be woven into game-changing wireless communications technologies will remain separate or poorly knit together, causing a delay that will put US leadership in the future of wireless in the global marketplace at great risk. By contrast, innovation centers can create an environment where the technology, the architecture, and the business models can more quickly evolve and emerge in parallel.
We have done this before
Building nationwide research infrastructure that supports education and fuels new industrial ecosystems is something we as a nation have done already—at least in part—in different ways. In the early 1980s, for example, MOSIS (Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service) began as a program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that empowered researchers from across the country to get involved in designing and using integrated circuits. According to MOSIS: Present and Future, a 1984 report by some of the creators of MOSIS, the program’s main function was “to act as a single interface between a geographically distributed design community and a diverse semiconductor industry. As such an interface, MOSIS has significantly reduced the cost and time associated with prototyping custom chips and custom boards.”
In short, MOSIS enabled researchers from around the country to tap into a shared infrastructure and knowledge base. In this way, MOSIS democratized complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip design and manufacturing and helped to ensure that the United States led in this chapter of the microelectronics revolution—in terms of fundamental technologies, the applications that grew out of CMOS technologies, and the innovation workforce that was central to it all.
As CMOS fabrication technologies advanced, so did the facilities and capabilities available to MOSIS users as the MOSIS hardware infrastructure kept evolving. When MOSIS metaknowledge exposed product gaps in the marketplace, companies formed to make the most of these opportunities. In this way, successive generations of graduate students and postdocs from around the nation got practical experience with CMOS chip design. These young researchers became the innovation workforce that brought the promise and potential of this platform technology to many different industries in this country. This phenomenon yielded new companies in multiple industries and a growing US workforce with practical experience that went on to both advance the technology and develop applications based on CMOS technologies.
MOSIS provides a fruitful example of the power of a virtualized innovation tool and the huge value that can be captured by empowering young researchers to gain practical experience with platform technology development and applications. Without MOSIS, most of these young researchers would not have been able to directly explore the use of CMOS technology. In addition, the demand would not have been there for the ancillary companies that sprang up to support and further develop the nation’s growing interest in CMOS technology. Furthermore, MOSIS is a useful example for highlighting something that a national network of innovation centers for practicing platform technology will not be: to some extent, MOSIS served to pick CMOS as the winning integrated circuit technology.
In contrast, the new innovation centers for the practice of platform technologies will not pick winning technologies. Instead, each innovation center will provide neutral territory and essential technological and tech-policy ecosystems where breakthroughs in areas of national importance can be evaluated. At each center, implementation, integration, interoperability, and security issues can be explored. Winning technologies will emerge from this environment of precompetitive collaboration and experimentation, where researchers from academia, industry, government, and national labs are all at the table.
Federal funding to protect the US research enterprise
New federal funding is critical for setting up and maintaining the nationwide virtualized research-for-education infrastructure at the core of these practice-focused innovation centers. Additionally, these new investments will serve to amplify the positive outcomes from the well-recognized virtuous cycles that emerge as traditionally funded US research teams move back and forth between fundamental and applied research projects. It is vital that policymakers preserve funding for both fundamental and applied research in all disciplines as researchers move forward with building out practice-based research infrastructure, with the aim of embedding these innovations (and their value) in the society that has funded them.
Built correctly, these practice-focused research ecosystems will create rich, dynamic virtual platforms with physical roots. They will create opportunities in which students of all levels as well as seasoned researchers in industry, government, and academia can interact. The nation will possess networked, virtualized research infrastructure that is specifically designed to encourage learning and engagement through practice. This vision is a blueprint for a more equitable and prosperous future in which anyone across the country has entry points to practice creating innovations. Moreover, policymakers will have found ways to build and rebuild America’s innovation-driven industrial ecosystems. This is practice as policy.