Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Tale of Two Zachary's; or My Great Ape & Me

"I was drawn to the heart of Africa by a song," the ethno-musicologist, Louis Sarno, has written. I sometimes think I was drawn to Africa by a chimpanzee. I met my wife, Chizo Okon, in the Accra Zoo, in Ghana, where she served as the surrogate mother for an orphaned chimpanzee.
The photo alongside this post is of another chimp, this one orphaned by hunters in Cameroon who killed his mother. With the help of an American doctor and an armed soldier from Cameroon's army, we rescued this chimp, which we found staked to a post, sweating in the beating sun.
The chimp was the victim of a set of old technologies: the rifle and the chain saw. Loggers in the Congo basin need food. The hunters find them bushmeat. Together, a cycle of rationale incentives -- timber fetches money the world over and loggers must eat -- conspire to doom the species of animals that share more DNA with humans than any other.
New technologies are part of the campaign to save Africa's chimpanzees from extinction. At a protected sanctuary deep in the jungles of Cameroon, near the mighty Sanaga River, Dr. Sheri Speede protects some 50 chimpanzees of various ages. Electrified fences keep out wild chimps that might harass her own. Security cameras record human intruders. Advanced medical techniques enable Dr. Speede to provide birth control to the female chimps, so they don't bear babies in captivity. And various technologies -- from boats to cars and even the Exxon oil pipeline that runs near the sanctuary -- help her to reduce the abuses against the chimpanzees who remain in the forests near her.
Honestly, I am not much of an animal person. I've lived my whole in cities, surrounded by modern technologies seemingly designed for my comfort. In an African jungle, I constantly protect myself against malaria. I drink only boiled water. I eat only cooked food or fresh fruit. The idea of handling wild animals is ridiculous.
On the morning of the day we rescued this chimnpanzee, I prodded and cajoled Dr. Speede to drive 100 miles to check out a report we'd received of a baby chimp for sale. We drove for hours, the three of us in a battered truck, navigating bad roads and managing our worsening moods. In the final leg, we were carried across a wide river on a small ferry owned by the timber company. On the other side of the river, we stumbled on an hunters camp. When the soldier drew his gun, the hunters put down their machetes and rifles, and I released the frightened chimp.
He clung to me. Dr. Speede, in recognition of how I pestered her to attempt a raid, named the Great Ape after me. She calls him Zachary.
When we returned before nightfall to the sanctuary, I held the chimpanzee in my arms, showing him off to Dr. Speede's astonished co-workers. Proud of myself, I stood in awe of this animal's intelligence and grace -- until the moment he urinated all over me.
As I write these words, I sit in the comfortable Mermaid Inn, not far from my current assignment -- helping a merry band of Finns, Swedes and Pakistanis, experienced journalists all, gain an introduction to both Silicon Valley and American journalism. The third day of our journey together is coming to an end, and I listen to the late Momo Wandel -- an extraordinary Francophone singer from West Africa -- groan out the first song from the Last King of Scotland soundtrack. When I think of the technological innovations spawned by Silicon Valley -- the very computer I write with, my new Iphone, even the magical badge that permits me to open the door to our office -- I am awed by the power of ingenious people to steadily improve ordinary life. Yet the chimp pictured in my arms, so well protected by Dr. Speede, is a reminder of the fragility of our technological systems. How easily can human tools upset the mysterious balance of our world.
I hope tommorrow's innovators can somehow restore that balance, if not for me, than at least for my children. Can they somehow break out of the peculiar trap, whereby our tools enhance and diminish us at the very same time?

Getting the Stuff Out of the Garage

Hewlett-Packard will announce a new strategy for HP Labs Thursday 6 March. One challenge for the corporate research facility:
Get innovations out of the lab and into customers’ hands

They Labs were founded in 1962, at a time when founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard still ran the company; a time when HP was radically different from the printer and personal computer company it is today.

Last August the labs got a new director, Prith Banerjee. In an interview made when he had been three months on the job, he pointed out the transfer of technology from the lab to HP’s business units as one big challenge.

That will probably be the main theme tomorrow Thursday, when CEO Mark Hurd will announce the new directions for the corporate research facility.

HP Labs has met the same criticism as Xerox Parc and Bell Labs: The research is excellent, but it has not consistently translated into commercial products. The question is, how does a personal computer maker benefit from advanced nanotechnology research?

Several other high-tech companies have broken up their labs and transferred all R&D to the separate business divisions, in order to bridge the gap between research and product development.

However, the HP management will likely keep the labs as a central corporate facility, according to industry watcher Tim Bajarin:
”Basically, the reason why Mark Hurd will be there tomorrow is to reinforce the importance of the HP Labs. They have been an important part of HP’s strategy for decades.”

”What we are talking about is not a reorganization, more of clarifying the vision for the labs. How they can make their work more relevant to customers demands today.”

In other words:
If you don’t get your products out of the garage, you wont have anything to sell.

There is Only One Silicon Valley

MENLO PARK. Will there ever be another valley? A shining refuge of innovation culture and daring venture capital? Europeans and Asians alike sure hope so. Enormous amounts of yens, euros and kronor are right now being poured into Medicon Valleys, Telecom Valleys, Fiberoptic Valleys or whatever valleys getting policymakers aroused and reaching for their tax-dollar-wallets.

So - is it possible for them to replicate the success of Silicon Valley?


That is the crude answer - delivered by no less than Dan Maydan, former president of Applied Materials, and Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame laureate.

He goes on after a while - reluctantly, as if the "no" answer should be more than obvious and quite sufficient.

"I think it's almost impossible," he says, further twisting the knife in the stomach of everyone that's ever uttered a sentence that involves the words "creating a cluster".

"It's all about culture. And one thing that is really hard to change, that is cultures."

It's hard to generalize, he acknowledges, but: The French are too analytical, Chinese people way too subdued and... yeah, well... let's stop right there, before we stir up a diplomatic icestorm.

Okey... how do you build successful innovation company then? If you're Swedish, French, German or Chinese?

Dan Maydan does not ponder.

"The first step is to move to Silicon Valley."

Dan Maydan conquers geography

After two hours’ invigorating news meeting we are pleased to have Dan Maydan here as our guest at Innovation Beat. He was president of Applied Materials until five years ago and is known to be one of the most famous inventors in the semiconductor industry.

“If you want to build an innovative company, you must come here”, says Dan Maydan, emphasizing the uniqueness of Silicon Valley.

Many countries are innovative in themselves, but they do not provide the unique environment that fosters continuous growth and reinventions of company offers. Small countries struggle to keep their inventions within their boundaries since there is always the option of selling the companies to bigger players in the global market, Silicon Valley being one of the primary destinations for these innovative embryos. Also, inventive people like Dan Maydan always face the option of going west.

Considering that so much of the success of Silicon Valley builds on input from abroad, it is clear that Silicon Valley should not be viewed as a physical spot on the American map. Instead, Silicon Valley is a gathering point for early stage innovative thinking that need special care to survive and translate into new products that provide customer value. Dan Maydan is a living example.

Companies Lack Innovation Systems

"Innovation is the only path to growth, but the US is lousy at it." says Curt Carlson, head of the research institute SRI International in Silicon Valley. He is sharing his best tips for companies who wants to survive in the new, fast moving world of business.

The number one question that any corporation should ask themselves, according to Mr. Carlson, is: what is the customer value?

“This is the most important definition in any business, but have you ever sat in a company who has had that discussion?” he asks rhetorically.

Mr. Carlson is an expert on innovation.

“The second most important definition for a company is value proposition," he continues. "Why should your customer stick to you?"

From experience, Mr. Carlson knows that many enterprises focus primarily on business ideas, but forgetting about customer needs and the cost-benefit ratio.

The problem, he says, is that companies today lack an innovation system. For innovation to take place, five things are necessary, he says. In addition to filling a customer need and creating value, the company must have people with new ideas, innovation teams and an organization adequately aligned to make use of it all.

Today, the industrialized economies are increasingly based on knowledge, as opposed to manufacturing. With this, a lot of new opportunities appear. The trick is to take advantage of them.

Governmental policies should normally aid in the process, but American policies leave a lot left to wish for, according to Mr. Carlson. With the introduction of Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, it has become a lot more bureaucratic and costly for companies to go public. The consequence is that fewer companies grow big today.
“The waste is enormous”, says Mr. Carlson.

Mr. Carlson says that 40 percent of low tech companies survive after their five initial years, 10 percent of the consumer product companies and one-quarter of all the companies founded in Silicon Valley.

The immigration policies are not exactly aiding the inflow of brains either.

“We just passed a law making it next to impossible for Einstein to come to the US,” says Mr. Carlson.

He is disappointed with the media, who mainly focus on large companies and fails to shed light on interesting startups and medium sized enterprises. And he thinks it is imperative for innovation to become a discipline, a subject that can be taught, applied and improved in order to raise the awareness of it among the public.

“In order to play a piano you need to know how to sit, hold the hands, read the notes. It is the same with innovation”.With this, Mr. Carlson - who also happens to be a classical violinist - ends his speech.

But it is uncertain whether great musicians like Ray Charles, who was blind and therefore unable to read noted, would agree with him.

SRI International was founded in 1946 by Stanford University and became independent in 1970. It is a nonprofit scientific research institute conducting client-sponsored research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations, and other organizations. Some of their inventions include the computer mouse, electronic banking and technology for endoscopic surgery. SRI receives 0.5 bn USD in state funding per year and employs 2200 people all around the world.

"Innovation Can Be Learned"

Passion is a great driving force for new ideas and inventions. But sometimes you can get even further when being forced to become productive. That is certainly true for Dr. Curtis R. Carlson, President and CEO of SRI International. SRI is one of Silicon Valley’s most successful centres of technological innovation, having created the computer mouse, the modern PC interface, robotic surgery, high-definition television, electronic banking, and a host of other world-changing innovations.

Curtis R. Carlson started the high-definition television program that produced the US standard, and has been involved in the founding of more than 12 companies in various industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to internet services. However, his greatest invention is not a patentable, fabricated item like the conventional company innovation. It is the way SRI innovates.

“The way we work is the most important innovation,” says Curtis R. Carlson.
The great turning point for Dr. Carlson was when the laboratory of the Radio Cooperation of America (RCA) was sold to SRI International. At the time, Dr. Carlson was a middle level technical manager at RCA, spending $10’s of millions on research every year. Now, suddenly, he was asked to not only manage technical teams, but also to deliver something of real customer value and, as a result, to earn money for SRI.

“My team and I woke up and realized that we did not have a clue how to innovate,” says Dr. Carlson. “We had to learn how to do it out of desperation.”

Urgently, he called for a group gathering every second Monday night. Over some pizzas and Cokes they discussed innovation and Dr. Carlson asked everybody, including himself, to present the value proposition they were working on for their proposed innovation.

The group took about 18 months to understand the keys to innovation and become successful. One key turned out to be quite direct and certainly neither as mysterious nor as complicated as many people often believe. A starting point to success is to analyse and develop your value proposition, or as Dr. Carlson says, your NABC: the customers Need, your Approach, the Benefit/cost for the customer, and the rivals or alternatives you are Competing against.

“These four, deceptively simple, items must be answered for every initiative,” he explains. “The reason they are hard to get right is that in the beginning you don’t know enough about your customer’s needs, you haven’t built the best approach to addressing it with the best ideas and partners, and you don’t understand your competition. Getting all four parts of your NABC answered properly takes considerable work and many, many iterations. The simple NABC framework gave us a common innovation language and assured that we efficiently got the answers required. Most people don’t do that.”

“Our experience in our Monday night meetings proved to me that innovation could be studied and learned, it could be shared; and it could be continuously improved,” says Dr. Carlson. “I saw how powerful it could be once understood and how frustrating it was if you did not do that.”

Today creating successful innovations and teaching innovation are passions for Dr. Carlson, both on a professional level as well as on a personal level.

“I have seen it change people’s lives,” says Curtis R. Carlson. “I have seen their dreams come true. And once you see that happen, you never want to work any other way again.”