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From Idea to Product: Crossing the Chasm

By Shlomo Maital


    When I teach entrepreneurship and innovation, I do a bit of theatre. I show my class a ‘matryoshka’ Russian nested doll set, and one by one assemble each doll, nested inside a larger one. I do this until I have 9 dolls on the table, down to the tiniest one. Then, I tell the story how one year, a sharp-eyed student asked, why nine? Instead of ten?, and I discovered a tenth tiny-tiny doll, much smaller than a pinky fingernail.

      I had been unaware of its existence, inside the 9th doll, for years.    See this? I hold it up to the students. This is the idea. This is the fun part. This is the easy part. The hard part? Implementing the idea. Building a business around it – the other 9 dolls. Without that, that tiny ‘idea doll’ is of no value.   

    Prof. Daniel Nocera, Harvard University, is an example. He has developed an artificial leaf. It’s an invention that generates energy the way a tree or a plant does. “Light strikes a container of water, and out bubbles hydrogen, an energy source, as the light breaks H2O into hydrogen and oxygen.” How does this work? Writes Jack Hittmarch (NYT March 29): “A silicon strip coated with catalysts breaks down the water molecule [using sunlight].”      Wow! Hydrogen! You could use all that hydrogen to power fuel cells, which are devices that convert the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Hydrogen is the most common ‘fuel’ for fuel cells.   

    Big wow! But the discovery was made years ago. Nocera says his system is very safe. “My system is based on water, so if there was a catastrophe we’d just need a mop.”   However, hydrogen is highly flammable, and highly explosive.    So turning the Artificial Leaf into usable energy means surmounting many obstacles. Create viable fuel cell technology. Solve safety issues, in storing hydrogen. Get consumers accustomed to using fuel cells. There are many cheap reliable nonpolluting energy sources. The issue, it seems, is not the invention. It’s how to make it desirable and usable for consumers. And THAT is a huge problem.   

   Nocera says that fracking and cheap natural gas is “killing” his artificial leaf invention.   But one day fracking may actually help. Fracking can produce hydrogen, at a cost of carbon dioxide. If such hydrogen production becomes widespread, so will the infrastructure to use it. And then, Nocera’s artificial leaf will be popular, because it can produce hydrogen (to feed the infrastructure) without generating carbon dioxide. It will defeat fracking.    To sum up: There are loads of great new technologies that ‘solve’ our problems. But there is a lack of wise capable entrepreneurs who know how to commercialize them fast, cheap, good, friendly, easy…. And governments willing to supply the needed infrastructure.  

    Innovators should bone up on these technologies and invest creativity not in new ideas but in how to implement old ones and diffuse them widely.    Long ago, Geoffrey Moore taught us how important it is to ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters of innovation and mass-market buyers. There is a different chasm, equally hard to cross – the chasm between a great idea based on sound technology, and a widespread commercial product or service used and loved by all. There is as much or more need for creativity in crossing this chasm as there is in inventing new technologies.


How America Buried Its Future in Its Defense Budget

By Shlomo Maital

USS NEw Mexico

   In Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, March 31, he writes about his cruise on the U.S.S. New Mexico, a modern nuclear attack submarine, underneath the Arctic ice cap.

   He describes: “Excellence…if anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. …As one officer put it: ‘You become addicted to integrity’. There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutuality and accountability is palpable.”

   How many American companies would LOVE to be able to describe themselves as Friedman describes the U.S. Navy submariners? How many would LOVE to have world-class cutting-edge technology, like the U.S. Navy, far beyond that of other companies?   Why don’t they? Because the U.S. defense budget in 2014, despite cuts, will total $526.6 b., or 4 per cent of America’s GDP. This is fully one-third of all the world’s defense spending in 2014, or $1.538 trillion, up from $1.538 trillion in 2013, the first rise in global defense spending in a decade. America is burying its economy in those costly nuclear subs.  

   Years ago, I visited an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. 11 decks of amazing technology and 5,000 superbly trained 18-year old or 20-year-old sailors. Planes launched and retrieved, at night, in darkness, simultaneously. Microsoft, IBM, eat your heart out.

   America’s chief rival, China, spends only $132 b. a year on defense, or one-fourth that of America. And NATO? The 28 NATO nations have agreed they should spend 2 per cent of GDP on defense (half of America’s level), but none except the U.K. (2.4 per cent) actually do.  

   And Russia? Russia will boost its military spending by 44 per cent in the next three years, to fulfill Putin’s vision of a Great Russia (“bring back the U.S.S.R.!”).

   So to sum up: The world is again in an arms race, defense spending is rising, and we are wasting huge sums on things like nuclear subs. Europe, as always, is sheltering under America’s defense spending, and has nothing to face Russia with. America has sunk its economy in military technology, which despite myths does not translate into cool civilian technology, for the most part.

   * What purpose do those superb Navy subs and aircraft carriers serve, when the main threat to America is Taliban terror, al Qaida fighters armed with AK-47’s and home-made improvised explosive devices?  

   * Would the world be a better place if America’s economy were made stronger by diverting defense spending into infrastructure and civilian technology and education?

   * Should Europe quit sponging off America and spend to defend itself?

   * Is Russia again going to impoverish itself by putting billions into defense rather than rebuilding its flagging civilian economy, just as the U.S.S.R. did, fatally? Russia’s Siberia oil production is declining because Russia simply is not maintaining its oil infrastructure there – this, despite piles of cash in the bank. Simple incompetence.

   Stay tuned.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
April 2014
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