While these new companies are often on a smaller scale, they can provide a future source for partnerships, mergers and acquisitions.
A spirit of focused innovation with a strong view to future prosperity is a key to the United States' ability to regain and then remain a world technology leader. To do this will require an even more intense commitment to research and development, along with the creation of cooperative environments and agreements between willing partners, and even competitors. It will also require an understanding of the interplay that needs to develop between R&D centers that are nationally and academically based, and those that are supported commercially. Maybe even more important are cooperative involvements that need to be encouraged with fledgling start-up efforts that often involve basement and home garage laboratories and testing facilities.
Some cooperative efforts have already started to appear in direct opposition to the notion that diverse entities cannot work together. It turns out that most of the individuals who preach that we cannot cooperate on R&D efforts using elements of government, industry, and academia are the very ones that hinder the activity. The imposed, and often supposed, rules that keep these groups apart are buried in the minutiae of overdeveloped bureaucracies, an overzealous legal system, and the comfort that comes from doing things the way we have always done them.
The other problems come from the notion that someone else will handle or take care of the problems; industry will find the solution, academia will train the next captain of industry or invent the next disruptive technology or, of course, the government will recognize, solve and fund the needed research and development efforts, so we don't have to worry about a thing. How has that been working for us lately?
Overall, these notions of any kind of a panacea are at best nearsighted and at worst delusional. It is true that these government supported R&D centers, along with the academically supported ones, are great storehouses of intellectual capital and physical resources, but their ability to react to the needs of their commercial counterparts (the people that make and then take things to market) has been at best, dismal. We still fail to preplan our measurables, to require deliverables and on the subject of accountability, well, that is often nonexistent. No for-profit company could operate this way.
So, is there anything new under the sun? Probably not a lot. But the small amount that does surface, or sneak through, is often all that is needed to guarantee our future economic prosperity. What we need is a little more focus and a lot more willingness to cooperate from the very groups we have entrusted to look after our wellbeing.
For those who argue that it has already been invented or studied, you have missed out on one of the most important attributes of our species -- a hopeful view of the future along with the ability to create the innovations that will get us there.
Smith is a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at WVU.