Bringing (Sexy) Techie Back

Genetically engineered bacteriophages are sexy. At least, I think so. So much so that I’m proud to say that I joined as a formal Advisor to Novophage, a spin-out from Boston University. Novophage is an exciting technology that can help decrease and possibly eliminate the increasing penetration of “superbugs” in our air, water and food supply. Novophage was started by a great team including Professor Jim Collins (one of the fathers of synthetic bioengineering), Dr Tim Lu (named by MIT Tech Review as one of 35 Top Innovators under 35), and Dr Mike Koeris (Research Scientist from MIT/BU and formerly with Flagship VC). Advisors include yours truly and far more impressively, Professor Robert Langer of MIT.

This is an amazing time to be entrepreneurial. Consumers and businesses are embracing web technologies, smart phones, and media in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago (I couldn’t have predicted Foursquare, could you?). Many of us in the VC/start-up ecosystem think, read and write about this stuff daily. Yet, there’s also groundbreaking progress in the field of genomics, robotics, healthcare IT, machine learning, the list goes on and on. It got me thinking that the explosion in social media has made us forget to pay homage to core technological innovation, the stuff in the “hard” sciences.

 Throughout the course of history, the biggest innovations have been rooted in scientific breakthroughs (think electricity, the steam engine, the microprocessor). Modern innovations like the electric car or 3D printing have enormous disruptive power. Furthermore, core technology innovations and web-technologies are not at all mutually exclusive (take Hunch, for example). Likewise, not all core tech innovations need tons of capital, and can still be “lean.”

This leads me to think about why we need to continue to build and invest in core technology innovation.

1 – We excel here. Ok, so we’re in eleventh place according to Thomas Friedman’s New York Times piece but the reality is that many of the most significant technological breakthroughs over the past two centuries have come from the good ol’ USA. This is where we flourish, this is how we create jobs (and replace ones that leave), and this is our best export. Our entrepreneurial, meritocratic ecosystem coupled with some of the world’s greatest engineering minds makes this fertile ground for core tech entrepreneurship.  Furthermore, this environment has made the US a magnet for the smartest minds around the world. Finally, our venture community thankfully has the wherewithal to fund core tech bets in virtually all sectors.

2 – Making stuff that’s hard to make is enormously gratifying. Learning new areas of technology and science, for geeks like me, is not only fun, it keeps us learning well beyond our school years.  Identifying a distinct market “problem,” bringing deep technology and building a business is a potent and exhilarating accomplishment. This combination inspires others to join the cause and do something for the first time, and creates large barriers to entry.

3 – Making stuff that’s hard is enormously profitable. 3M Co. acquired our company because they lacked the software, hardware, visualization and optics experience that we brought to the table (historically it was a chemistry-focused business). Big companies buy small ones for innovations they can’t otherwise develop internally. Most large companies think they have the distribution, brand and assets to get good products out to customers. The challenge is they can’t invent everything themselves. Thus, big premiums get paid for things that are hard.

Core technology entrepreneurship can be risky and hard. Hell, it can be downright scary. In the end, however, value creation occurs when talented folks get together to build unique technology.

(next post – How to get involved in core tech even if you’re not a techie)