is not enough.
To accelerate science and technology and build enduring companies, we must reinvent the corporate research lab.
An experiment gone wrong.
We have two foundational goals:
- Accelerate science and technology.
- Help build relentless technology companies.
For the better part of the 20th century, working on cutting-edge research at places like Bell Labs, HP Labs, or Xerox Parc was a great way to meet these goals.
The long list of breakthroughs first made in these labs produced some of the most defining technologies of the modern era, including the computer transistor, communication satellites, solar cell arrays, LED displays, lasers, and the cellular phone, to name a few.
Yet despite this incredible track record of invention, the companies that pioneered these breakthroughs never truly capitalized on their monumental achievements. Instead, they got overrun by new and nimble startups like Intel, Apple, and Microsoft, that were often able to improve on the technology and go to market at a breakneck pace.
Today, it doesn’t even surprise anyone to know that large technology companies have all but abandoned end-to-end research from lab to market, preferring to pay top dollar instead for innovations coming from without.
Take Silicon Valley monopolies. As Peter Thiel has long argued, these companies pay lip service to science and technology with small side projects while sitting on tens of billions of dollars in cash. Instead of Bell Labs, we get weather balloons beaming wifi to Africa. Admirable, but the real question is why can’t we do both?1
Indeed, far from delivering the cornucopia these companies once promised, the growing mountain of cash they’ve piled leads us to suspect that the path forward is fraught with more stagnation.
Despite their record profits, it would be inconceivable for most publicly-listed technology companies today to announce that they’re pursuing research on highly speculative new technologies that may not find commercial use for a decade or more. And while this trend won’t change anytime soon, we believe that it casts serious doubts on the long-term health of science and technology innovation.↩︎
Large numbers. Small problems.
The story goes in Silicon Valley that a never-ending stream of startups, scaling rapidly from small beginnings, can eventually take care of the world’s biggest problems.
Yet, while startups may seem capable of anything in theory, even cavalier founders know, in practice, to stay clear of complex problems with lots of moving parts.
It would be unthinkable, for example, to try building new transportation technology that cuts the commute time to Los Angeles or New York in half, effectively doubling the productive workforce of our great cities. A ride hailing app is far easier to roll out so long as you can take over the world before the competition. And the fact that SpaceX and Tesla are two rare exceptions to this logic only serves to prove the rule.2
Although startups can excel at innovation using existing technology, that alone cannot make up for the growing absence of breakthrough invention and discovery. A health tracking app is no substitute for a cancer cure.
This lopsided innovation model paid off handsomely when Silicon Valley was really unique, but now that computer innovation is diffused globally, the model is beginning to show signs of diminishing returns as the competition with Europe, India, Russia, and China, rapidly escalates.
Looking ahead, we believe that the best founders will try to escape the runaway competition by rediscovering how to combine invention, innovation, and execution under one roof.
That will often mean looking for new opportunities outside the narrow scope of computer software and the internet, two areas that have been scoured by countless startups over the past three decades.
Therefore, it’s high time we took a fresh look at what it takes to build a research-driven technology company in the 21st century and re‑examined the unquestioned monopoly of the research university.
We can no longer rely on the legend of dorm room disruption and wait for a torrent of startups to save us.
Stanford-cum-Y-Combinator is not enough.
Software startups, in particular, are easier than ever to start, but we should not let this blind us to the vast range of real-world problems that will need new science and engineering breakthroughs to solve in a successful 21st century.↩︎
The frontier. Revisited.
There are three important questions we cannot delay asking for much longer as we face down intense competition in the decades ahead:
- Is U.S. corporate research stalled out?
- How should we rethink our approach to research to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to its decades-long decline?
- If research alone isn’t enough, how do we build relentless companies that never stop reinventing themselves?
Given the established relationship between R&D and Progress, these questions hint at a new branch of study to examine the micro and macro forces that determine a company’s ability to produce and develop new breakthroughs.
The late Steve Jobs put it more simply: “I discovered that the best innovation is sometimes the company, the way you organize.”
Perspective is everything.
Most attempts to examine these questions so far have been too broad or too academic to carry any practical use for founders. We’ll start off by going back to the basic micro and macro questions facing anyone starting a research-driven venture today:
- Team: Are there any eccentric scientists left? How do you find them?
- Funding: How do you sustain research on unpopular or long-term problems? What does a reverse Gresham’s law funding regime look like?
- Frontier: Where is the near frontier today? How can a talented young team get there quickly to work on new and meaningful problems?
- Complexity: Are we doomed to ever-narrower specialization? How do you reduce complexity in advanced research fields and drastically cut down on the time it takes to start making headway?
- Coordination: In a risk-averse culture governed by the precautionary principle, is there any dangerous research left? How do you even get this research out of the lab and into the world?
- Scale: Are startups the only way left in our society to do something new? Can larger companies still run effective research projects? Can the U.S. still organize large-scale research or engineering efforts?
- Secrets: Is the U.S. falling behind because whole research fields are becoming forbidden? How do we reopen the frontiers now closed?
Starting from these questions, we’ll interview various innovators and pioneers to help us form a practical synthesis on each theme that we’ll publish, alongside the interviews, in a series of essays.
By taking this extensive, almost pedagogical approach, we hope to lift the entire series into a reference guide for aspiring founders, as well as anyone looking to learn from the insights our research uncovers.
Reinventing the future.
As the software and internet revolution enters its fourth decade with record-high profits for Silicon Valley, a few insiders may already sense that something is off with the state of innovation today. Yet, when the profits are this high, those misgivings get nowhere very fast.
That’s why we believe that change will have to come from the outside. And by having an open discussion on the questions that Silicon Valley insiders are not allowed to ask, we hope to accelerate the pace of this change towards a more intensive mode of progress, and ultimately transform how technology companies get built.
For the 21st century to succeed, we need more technology companies, but we also need our technology companies to do more. We can no longer make progress with the easy answers of the past. To rediscover our way forward, we can never stop reinventing the future.
Every great venture is refoundable.