So why hasn’t GE invented it?

You’ve done your pitch.  The investors are engaged.  You’ve amazed them with the potential of the technology.  20% of something has been saved.  It’s 50% better than something else.  The market is huge, and ready for innovation.  You understand the barriers, and how to overcome them. The investors are impressed with you, and the experience of your team.

It’s time for questions.  And one of the first ones will be: “if it’s so good, why hasn’t it been invented by GE / ABB / IBM [insert blue chip company acronym of choice].”

It is a fair point.  No matter how clever and creative your team, there are engineers and others within these major industrial companies just as clever, and just as creative.  And they’re backed by significant resources, and a track record in innovation which may date back to the 19th century.  Why is it that a major disruptive technology would emerge from a few under-resourced individuals in a start-up or spin-out?  And why would it emerge now?

There are specific answers in specific cases.  It may be that there are advances in CAD or in machining that enable something to be made now that was not possible before.  Or that an academic field is so far ahead of the game that no-one has yet published, and the development is not on the industrial radar.  Or that a multi-disciplinary team has transferred a technology to a new space, making connections that an established player wouldn’t.

But in most cases the answer is simply that the inventors had the time to play.  Individuals, whether academics with a department covering their salary or inventors in sheds with a day job, need freedom to enable their creativity.  Large companies may invest billions in R&D, but it’s always directed, always managed.  And so it should be.  But this direction and control limits freedom, the kind of open space that allows risks to be taken and thoughts to run free. Technology development by individuals is distinct from that of corporates in the way that art is distinct from design.  I don’t look to an artist merely to produce a better image; I look to them to transform my perception of the world.

The kind of creativity that leads to displacement technologies is not suited to large companies.  It’s a challenge for large companies to create suitable environments for innovation. But it’s a real opportunity to academics, inventors and creatives everywhere who – whether by intent or by luck – find themselves able to let their thoughts run free.