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Innovation Alchemy: Turning Ideas into Gold

Posted: 04/29/10 04:01 PM ET

Small but welcome improvements continue in the economic picture. Yet we remember having stared into the abyss of the global economic meltdown as though it were yesterday. With this economic near-death experience still so fresh, now may not seem the time for ambitious and aggressive investments in science and technology. But, in reality, this is the best possible time to embrace innovation.

At our respective organizations -- Intel and Caltech -- we are encouraging new approaches to the vital issues in our society where science and technology can make a contribution. Similar developments are being played out at research institutions and innovative companies throughout the U.S. Together with parallel developments in public policy, these give reason for excitement and hope for our country.

At Intel, the recent great recession and concerns about a slow and fragile recovery have inspired a renewed commitment to investing in the future at the intersection of technology and education. Good investment leads to ideas and discoveries that spawn new businesses, create jobs, and ultimately lead to a higher standard of living. Between 2003 and 2008, Intel put $50 billion to work in U.S. plant and equipment and research and development, and in 2009-2010 Intel is investing another $7 billion in U.S. manufacturing to produce silicon wafers with today's most advanced chipmaking technology. Intel also invests in longer-term and exploratory research with U.S. universities seeking breakthroughs not only in semiconductor technology but also in new applications and uses for information technology. In this process, we help encourage university students to become the engineers and scientists that create tomorrow's technology.

For Caltech, educational and research initiatives at the boundaries of scientific disciplines are inspiring some of the world's best minds to focus on game-changing technologies in areas critical to our future such as energy and health. Furthermore, the potential for transfer of scientific discoveries from academic labs to the commercial sector encourages students and faculty to consider the business potential of their work and benefits it can bring to society and the economy at large. Embracing this culture has had a transformative impact on knowledge and innovation at Caltech, encouraging faculty and staff to pursue patents aggressively and actively support startups founded upon faculty inventions. The highly selective community of scholars fostering cross-disciplinary interactions is only one model. Educational and research institutions of all kinds today make up the sustainable foundation of our country's innovation.

Meanwhile -- and despite the economic challenges facing the nation -- the Obama Administration is rethinking federal innovation policy. The President's "Strategy for American Innovation" released in the fall of 2009 recognizes that "a short-term view of the economy masks under-investments in essential drivers of sustainable, broadly shared growth".[i] Following the Recovery Act, the White House is supporting sustained federal investment in R&D, education, and infrastructure, while addressing export and visa controls and other regulatory barriers that limit the flow of ideas.

In the Congress, House and Senate committees continue work to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which will revitalize federal programs that stimulate innovation by emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics across the educational and economic spectrum.

Close relationships between business and academia let us connect curricula, research, and business plans to address important issues. Supported by enlightened government policies, this merging of invention into innovation is at the center of the real economy -- the making of things, the solving of problems, improvements in society.

A new sense of inventiveness has permeated all three sectors -- and that gives reason for hope for America's future. But if leaders don't continue to take innovation seriously, our nation still risks falling behind in the global economy. Absolutely nothing about the future is guaranteed - not jobs, not leadership, not our standard of living.

It's not about any one of us as companies or institutions, but for all of us to ask: What can we do to help secure America's future as the world's leader in science, technology and economic growth?

Paul Otellini is President and CEO of Intel Corporation. Jean-Lou Chameau is President of the California Institute of Technology.