Eric Schmidt: His Innovation Panel to Solve America’s Problems

While Obama dealt with his wayward general, his Innovation guru—the Google CEO—was trying to jump start American business. Lauren Streib reports on the 7 sharpest moments at the meeting.

John Raoux / AP Photo

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has built up one of the world’s most important companies by capitalizing on innovation with proprietary technology and competitive aggression. An early Obama supporter, Schmidt is now charged with doing the same thing for America, and yesterday he took a big step forward, convening a panel of 25 renowned technology, innovation and science experts in D.C. yesterday at the behest of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—a fancy name for Obama’s innovation task force. Schmidt, along with Shirley Ann Jackson, is co-chair of the Council's innovation and technology committee; yesterday was it’s first meeting to discuss technology.

“The gap between where we are and where we would like to be strikes me as the opportunity gap,” Schmidt told the group. “It is not at all obvious to me how we cross that…help me understand how we translate this into something scalable.”

“Saying that markets are efficient is like saying that diamonds burn spontaneously in air.”

Amid an unending problems, the meeting hewed to one of Obama’s key philosophies: innovation is the key to the future of the country. “Innovation has been essential to our prosperity in the past, and it will be essential to our prosperity in the future,” he avowed during a radio address last August. His official Innovation Strategy, used to focus the $100 billion of Recovery Acts funds that are designated for initiatives that support innovation, was announced last September.

So what did some of the smartest people in the country tell Schmidt to relay to Obama? The Daily Beast listened in on the pow-wow, and captured some of the panelists’ suggestions.

Judy Estrin CEO, JLabs Problem: Disorganized regulatory agencies; hurdles to entrepreneurship Solution: Create lines of communication within and between agencies that regulate and promote innovation, such as the FDA and the FCC. Give large companies incentives to take risks, so that inventions as well as business-building can occur domestically. Money quote: “We are broken. The entrepreneurial eco-system is broken because we don’t have equity and we’re not taking risks in the market.”

Jim Andrew Senior Partner & Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group Problem: Opacity in government grant process Solution: Explicit discussions about what areas of research and development the government is funding. Create a more efficient, faster system for regulation and licensing so the mobilization of private funding is easier. More emphasis on translation research, which focuses on practical applications of lab discoveries. Money quote: “Uncertainty is the enemy of investment.”

Anita Goel CEO, Nanbiosym; Physicist, Harvard-MIT Problem: Outsourcing of valuable technology jobs Solution: Creation of innovation “zones,” with physical and technological infrastructure, where new ideas can go from concept to prototype to testing and manufacturing in a centralized location to encourage domestic manufacturing. Greater focus on creating innovative products that can be used globally and across several commercial markets Money quote: “Instead of worrying about our manufacturing jobs being taken overseas, we can create the next generation of manufacturing here and all over the world.”

Erez Lieberman-Aiden CEO, iShoe; Hertz Fellow, Harvard-MIT Problem: Limited ways to recognize new innovators Solution: Incorporate new media into the process of innovation, such as YouTube video demonstrations, which are much more accessible and inexpensive than patent application and academic papers, and which also give innovators an identity. Democratize old and outdated modes of presenting inventions to accommodate a younger generation of inventors. Money quote: “Nurse the new generation.”

Tom O'Halloran Chemistry Professor, Northwestern University Problem: Barriers to market entry Solution: Tax credits which promote investment in early stages of inventions and encourage private equity and large companies to invest in innovative ideas Money quote: “Saying that markets are efficient is like saying that diamonds burn spontaneously in air. It’s a completely true statement…but there is a huge barrier.”

Carl Picconatto Associate Department Head, MITRE Problem: Misallocation of funds and energy Solution: Focus of government should be on creating infrastructure. The absence of expensive and uncommon tools is often what holds up innovation in nanotechnology. Money quote: “Not every problem needs a solution…It is good that it is hard to [transition ideas]. We don’t want to waste all of our money transitioning ideas.”

José Gómez-Márquez Program Director, Innovations in International Health, MIT Problem: Lack of acknowledgment for cooperative efforts Solution: Creation of a multidisciplinary panel that can recognize ways that innovators have shared ideas, technologies or infrastructure to take advantage of respective advantages, which would also create more incentive to share resources. Money quote: Inventors “are sharing, sharing across disciplines, and that should be recognized.”

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Lauren Streib is a reporter for The Daily Beast. She was previously a reporter for Forbes.