Directors or managers of these efforts are themselves judged by metrics of success that have little connection to making changes in our economic sector. Thus, we get what we pay for, but not necessarily what we need.
Entrepreneurs, by their very persistence and sheer gall, who do make it into the marketplace, become poster children for the programs that seemed to spawn them.
This problem isn't limited to any one sector. Those federal, state and local governments that launch innovation programs also fall prey to these problems. Nontechnical people, who have no appreciation for the value of advanced technology and how it works to create innovation, often staff them.
They also resort to metrics that seem beneficial but are often self-serving and restrictive to truly innovative technologies. As an example, funds are always limited in these programs, so the view is to spread money among as many as possible. This may increase the number of ideas supported, and may find a few more promising ones. But often this method stifles the best concepts that would have required more investment to even have a chance.
For instance, if the metric for success is job creation, then food service jobs become an obvious hit. New restaurants and mom-and-pop shops become very attractive. The result, a large number of jobs created by these organizations are minimum wage with a few blue-collar managers.
The better innovation programs are careful to avoid using job creation as the primary or single indicator for success. They look for the creation of new and advanced industry and changes that will move the economy forward.
The true measure for the success of innovation is not just job creation. It's related to wealth creation. New technologies and processes allow for the creation of new organizations, with their needed employee salary ranges. It also provides the tax base from these workers and the profits that emerge, where the profits are normally used to grow the entity and feed the social infrastructure.
The goal needs to be strongly directed to wealth generation. The metrics should be the number of inventions or ideas, devices and processes taken to market: True innovation. In other words, the metrics should be the number of companies formed, the number of people employed, and the total of the profits against revenue generated. Several innovative organizations, spread across the country, are using these metrics as their sole reason for existence.
More important, wealth creation draws out other creative people who might go unnoticed. The current job model draws out small business developers, which, while important, often exclude the person with the game-changer technology.
Most successful innovation programs seek two conditions in their participants: A good idea and the person behind it with a fire in the belly to make it happen. The number of these individuals in any organization is small. Finding them becomes the critical effort. The individuals best suited to find them are typically of the same ilk, with technical backgrounds, possibly regarded as eccentric.
In other words, the very people you need are the ones you are least likely to employ or listen to. A lot of our ridiculed visionaries will be put in our history books long after they die. If only we had a crystal ball.
Smith is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at WVU.