The Valley of Death and how to cross it

Last October, the Catalan public broadcaster offered a good documentary, “Inversió de futur” with key leaders of the research and innovation community in our country.

One of the main issues discussed was the so-called “valley of death”: the big hole between the process of fundamental research and the commercial world.

This is a classical problem in all the innovation systems worldwide. In Europe one expression of such problem is called “European paradox”. How is it possible that a continent with this high productive science and technology community be so incompetent in transferring its results to the market? Why are we losing ground year after year in front of the big corporations of US and Asia? 

In Catalonia, after a decade of investing in creating a community of high quality scientific researchers (CERCA), the situation is quite similar to other European countries. We are suffering the Valley of Death syndrome. We don't know how to transfer our excellent research to the commercial world. 

One way to attack the problem is to learn how other countries have found solutions. Which countries? Our authorities have repeated year after year that Catalonia should be the California or the Massachusetts of Europe. Let's see how these USA hubs have emerged themselves as world champions in science and technology. 

The economist Marianna Mazzucato has published this year a brilliant study that all the researchers interested in innovation policies must read. The title: “The Entrepreneurial State”.

You can find it in the Net by Creative Commons. 

“Entrepreneurial State”? Can a State be entrepreneurial? During more than three decades neoliberal economists have preached again and again that individuals are the only true entrepreneurs. The State was an anachronistic institution leaded by a bureaucratic mindset. But this model does not explain how the leading Science and Technology system works, starting by the US science and technology community, the global leader, and its main hubs: California and Massachusetts. 

The Mazzucato thesis is that the system works, at least since Second World War, thanks to the Entrepreneurial State. The US Administration is the key actor in leading the main technologies that are the core of the modern society. The system is not leaded by a bunch of individual pioneers like in the Old West movies. The key actor is a group of entrepreneurial public agencies like DARPA that has fuelled decade after decade the disruptive technologies and has paved the way to the US supremacy in High Tech. DARPA is the paradigm of such entrepreneurial role of the State. 

But let's go a step forwards. This Entrepreneurial State has also changed during the last decades the whole Science and Technology system. High Tech is the modern name of such system. DARPA was the mother of the US research program in IT through the creation of the Computer Science Departments in the main US universities (MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and a few others), called “ARPA lab's” in the 60s. The model was analyzed in the 90s by a group of anthropologists of the University of Barcelona (Serra, A. 19921) and it has been the model that has inspired the creation of centers like i2cat since its beginning more than 10 years ago. The DARPA model is an effort to “bridging the gap” between the fundamental science and the innovation, a bridge across the Valley of Death. 

But more important, DARPA and the DoD, Department of Defense, not only funded such kind of research but they were the first users and buyers of its results through innovative public procurement. This is second bridge across the referred Valley. The DARPA projects are not for the only interest of the scientific and technological community. They really need it. And they do use it. The results are not only papers but prototypes, systems that work and only when they do, the hypotheses are validated. They build deeds, not only analyze facts. Science and Technology are blended. In DARPA, “CERCA” and “TECNIO” are unified communities.

DARPA is not the classical agency of bureaucrats. They are the best researchers and policy makers working during a mandate in selecting the kind of strategic technologies with a “dual use”: first the military, then the market. Computer Science is its invention: a science of a technology. The Old Europe division between Science and Technology is gone. Technological sciences (“synthetic sciences”) or scientific technologies (“high tech”). That's all, folks. Computer Science is a DARPA's creature and its result, the Internet. The Valley of Death exists only in the old model. The new one creates a new collaborative environments between the public and the private world like the Stanford Research Park (the birthplace of Sillicon Valley), overcoming the traditional Valley of Death.

In this new model, the public sector is not an assistant to the market anymore. It leads the market. In fact it is the new market, the most innovative part of the high tech economy. 

When will the European Commission understand this point? When will they stop pouring millions of euros in our private dinosaurs and start an innovative public procurement policy to feed our Googles, Apples, and so on? 

The US most dynamic private companies and startups are not fighting against the State but they need it as first buyer. The goal of these companies is getting the users, not the market: First the public user, finally everyone in the planet. Only when you have millions of users then you can get the benefits of the market. Remember the Google's first principle: “Focus on the user and all else will follow”.

Unfortunately this model is still quite unknown in Europe and in our country. The model of research and innovation that we have followed in the last decade is a smaller version of the most common European one developed by Germany after World War 2. It is based on an outdated separation between science (Max Planck) and technology (Fraunhofer), with the final goal of pouring new products and services in the market. This is the model followed in Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, but not in California or Massachusetts. These European regions are leaders in Europe but not the reference players in the global competition of high tech. Europe continues to step back in such league year after year. But why Europe is not a key player in the global competition with America and Asia?. One of the main reasons is because of our mental frameworks, our beliefs. In Europe we still believe in our old economic and political models elaborated by people like Schumpeter or Keynes that say that the entrepreneurs are individuals and that the main role of the State is to provide Welfare services. But Europe can change, and Catalonia too. 

In the next years, the new European Commission has committed to invest 300.000 million euros in fighting the economic and social crisis. We need a kind of European ARPA, dedicated to spur a new disruptive program of research and innovation in high tech with the participation of millions of European citizens. Why do not we apply the Entrepreneurial State vision to our Welfare systems? To our cities? To our cultural heritage? To our educational systems?. 

Europe can be transformed itself in a global collaboratory developing the next generation of high tech: creativity technologies, innovation and knowledge. The Internet can be transformed in such platform of knowledge and innovation beyond the current Internet of information and communication. We have very few military users in Europe. Our users are every single citizen that can be empowered to innovate, the European Network of Living Labs dixit2, with the new generation of technologies and collaborative environments.

We can overcome the Valley of Death. Other countries like Israel have done it. The only requirement: changing disruptively our Science and Technology model.

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