Sunday, September 26, 2010

Missing Moonshots

I've been wanting an energy moonshot for years, so it was a real pleasure to see Tom Friedman using his New York Times column this morning to say that other people have moonshots so why don't we?  Of course it's China he's referring to (that's Tianjin's high-speed rail station at left, sometime next year).  Friedman identifies the electric car industry as a moonshot the US needs to have.  The twist is that it would be a joint moonshot between the US and China.  This would involve levels of cooperation and information sharing that the world hasn't seen before. It would include the sharing of intellectual property at early stages of development.

The U.S. is internally divided about intellectual property.  The business community generally wants uncrackable IP, in large part because empires have been built on secret formula that can't be imitated and made more cheaply in a process that undermines the originator's market. Think Microsoft DOS and Windows, Google's page rank algorithms, Apple, Coca-Cola, and so on. These companies support limited forms of "open innovation," largely where they help build their own product ecosystem.  On the other hand, everyone knows that various firms competing for control of the best (and uninfringable) IP isn't nearly enough.  Bill Gates, leading venture capitalist John Doerr, and others recently called for a tripling in federal funding for energy research.  And yet Doerr sees development largely as a Darwinist competition for the fittest technology among a large number of firms, and in a competitive environment firms naturally rely on trade secrets, undisclosed licenses of patents, and every kind of leveraging of their IP. Top officials sometimes call for the suspension of IP in strategic or early-stage areas, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu did early in his term.  How does this square with maximum commercial competition that generally seeks exclusive rights?

China now has a huge advantage over the U.S. in the sheer scale of public funding. I would argue it has also an imagination advantage as well -- the scale of its vision for new infrastructure and public devices outstrips anything now seen in the West. I believe it has a third advantage as well: the creation of massive de facto patent pools for the sake of collective goals that are simultaneously social and economic. The sheer scale of this coordination is necessary given the size of the challenge, and yet it is currently unimaginable in the United States. In spite of our faltering recovery, and the simply uncompetitive state of much of our infrastructure, American leaders seem to feel little urgency.  The U.S. is not now leading the energy revolution, and unless we face reality and adapt our IP practices to support massively multi-user collaboration systems, we may soon not qualify as partners.

For concrete examples of next generation IP and technology transfer practices, see in particular the Gerald Barnett and Carol Mimura presentations posted on our Lyon Workshop page.

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