Rediscovering fundamental innovation

Eugene Fitzgerald

Eugene Fitzgerald explores the innovation dynamics that produce new technological and economic paradigms.

Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors per chip will roughly double every two years, has held up past its expiration date, chugging along like a Martian rover that refuses to die. Yet, the long predicted end of Gordon Moore’s calculation, which has led to 20 to 30 percent growth for microprocessor-related businesses for almost 40 years, is finally drawing near.

But aren’t there other Moore’s Law-like phenomena just waiting to be found, ready to stoke the economy once again? Perhaps, but one cannot count on a regenerative engine like Moore’s Law just popping out of thin air, says Eugene A. Fitzgerald, the Merton C. Flemings-SMA Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.

“We were fortunate in the U.S. to have a fundamental innovation paradigm that gave us incredible economic growth for decades throughout all our institutions,” Fitzgerald says. “Now, with Moore’s Law coming to an end, we’re seeing slower growth. It’s stressful, but also exciting, as we look for a new path.”

Unfortunately, our new search coincides with a period in which U.S. corporate, academic, and government research and development investments are faltering, says Fitzgerald. “With the fading away of corporate labs like Bell Labs, the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. has changed,” says Fitzgerald. “The lack of forward corporate investments has hurt innovation productivity.”

While Fitzgerald is especially concerned with the decline of America’s once-preeminent R&D leadership, he notes that it’s really a global problem. “There’s still no other country that’s better at it,” he says.

The push and pull of iterative innovation

If we ever hope to strike an innovation gusher like Moore’s Law again, let alone identify and nurture more modest growth engines that will help compensate for its absence, we will certainly need more R&D investment. Yet, success will also require a better understanding of innovation itself, says Fitzgerald.

In "Inside Real Innovation – How the Right Approach Can Move Ideas from R&D to Market – And Get the Economy Moving" (2011, World Scientific), Fitzgerald argues that a more holistic approach to innovation will be needed to develop the next big tech engine. The book was co-authored by Andreas Wanker, director of operations for the Innovation Interface, a joint MIT-Cornell University program; and Carl Schramm, former CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

“People imagine that technology research is a linear process that moves from stage to stage, but we found that’s not really what happens,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s actually an iterative process. Even when you’re in the research stage, you have to think about potential applications and how you might build and sell a product in the future. If you constantly update all those factors, it allows you to have a better chance of having an impact.”

Inside Real Innovation draws lessons from the development of strained silicon technology, which about 15 years ago revolutionized the performance of silicon integrated circuits. Fitzgerald, who had worked on lattice mismatch technology back at Cornell, was one of the key developers of Si/Ge lattice mismatch strain engineering at Bell Labs in the late '80s and early '90s. He continued his research at MIT, and then helped spin off AmberWave to commercialize strained silicon intellectual property.

The book lays out a blueprint for thinking organizationally about innovation. In addition to encouraging proactive thinking about future capabilities and market demands, Fitzgerald calls for better coordination of the three main elements of innovation: technology, market application, and implementation.

“People tend to think of innovation as either being pushed by technology or pulled by the market,” Fitzgerald says. “Yet, all these components are always pushing and pulling and affecting each other, including implementation issues. The great innovators continually reexamine each element over the length of the entire project. From the very start, you have to think about how the implementation and market applications might impact the technology 10 to 15 years out.”

Successful startups and development teams require expertise in all three areas. It’s rare to find someone like Apple’s Steve Jobs, who can iterate through all three elements, says Fitzgerald. However, startups can gain an edge if a few leaders know two out of three elements.

“Typically, you may have a tech person who has gained experience in a particular application in the marketplace, and maybe a person who knows industry operations, but then learns about the tech side,” he says. “It’s important to have this crossover in order to communicate and come to common ground. If you have somebody who knows only one side, even if you have all three elements covered, it’s difficult to speak the same language and evaluate risk together.”

To meet this need, there’s been a recent focus at universities on entrepreneurship and integrated teams, notes Fitzgerald. For example, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, business students are encouraged to learn more about technology, and MIT engineers are taught more about business than in previous years.

Now it’s time for corporations to do more on their end, says Fitzgerald: “A lot of the information entrepreneurs need about product implementation and activation is found inside companies. So the closer we can bring corporations to the university, the better it is for everyone. Corporations can influence the birth of an idea in the university, which improves the chance for successful implementation.”

Wanted: More technological home runs

The innovation process is similar, whether it’s an incremental project that takes one to three years, or a longer-term project, says Fitzgerald. What differs is the amount of uncertainty and risk that must be weighed.

With incremental projects you can afford to use traditional methods of looking at risk, as uncertainty is generally introduced only into one element, such as technology, says Fitzgerald. “When you look at the change from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6, some of the technology has changed, but the market application and the business model are the same,” he says.

When you have a more fundamental breakthrough, however, such as strained silicon, it takes 10 to 15 years before the first revenues arrive, says Fitzgerald. As a result, uncertainty creeps into all three elements.

“Fundamental innovation is influenced by all kinds of parameters, which in the short term you may not think are important, but end up impacting what’s happening over time,” says Fitzgerald. “That’s very difficult to support over the 10 to 15 years it takes to move those innovations across the university-corporate gap.”

Complex, long-term projects must not only successfully migrate from university to corporate settings but in some cases across multiple universities and companies. “In our strained silicon example, we moved through several different organizations,” says Fitzgerald.

Since there are few frameworks in place for such sustained R&D, we’re swimming in incremental improvements but have fewer and fewer heavy hitters in the pipeline. “The lack of investment has cut off the more fundamental innovations that are required for very high economic growth,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald is not only studying the innovation problem in the abstract. He’s also applying his innovation principles in his own research. Around the same time his book was published, Fitzgerald helped launch a Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES) program with MIT’s Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) initiative. Fitzgerald is exploring opportunities in building new monolithic integrated circuits using III-V (3-5) semiconductor materials combined with silicon complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology.

The interdisciplinary project, which aims to develop innovative new optical chips, brings materials, process, device, and circuit design experts together from academia and industry. In fact, MIT SMART in general has adopted many of the interdisciplinary, iterative processes that are advocated in Fitzgerald’s book. It remains to be seen if the program’s success might eventually encourage similar efforts in the U.S.

Topics: Materials Science and Engineering, Faculty, Profile, Industry, Silicon, Electrical engineering and electronics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Research, Emerging markets

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