Recipe for innovation: Funding, freedom, focus
Three fundamental things are needed to encourage innovative thought and creative processes – freedom, funding, and focus. Here’s how Bell Labs used them to foster innovation.
I was born in Italy where I completed my studies, but almost my entire working life has been spent in the United States. I moved to Harvard University in 2003, but until then, I worked at Bell Laboratories, better known as "Bell Labs", where I held several research and management positions including vice president of physical research. Bell Labs was the crown jewel in AT&T’s technology-driven R&D program and in the seventies, when I started working there it was at its absolute peak.
Bell Labs was, for more than 50 years, the premier industrial laboratory in the world. Dozens of the most important modern inventions, along with seven Nobel Prize Winners, of which nearly half were members of IEEE, emerged from Bell Labs. The transistor, the charge-coupled device which led to the pervasive digital cameras and to the imaging of the faintest galaxies billions of light years away, the laser and many more inventions, which power our modern society, were all developed at Bell Labs. I quickly became completely immersed in the culture of free-thinking and problem solving in this boiling, creative cauldron.
Federico Capasso, Ph.D., IEEE fellow, Robert Wallace Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and co-inventor of the quantum cascade laser
Why was Bell Labs such a dynamic research establishment?
I think the answer lies in the ability to attract some of the best people from all over the world and on how it was managed.
Innovation operates at the very edge of creative thought, where existing ideas are broken down and reassembled into something new and original. You cannot manage this activity top-down since innovation is inherently a bottom-up process, which thrives on brainstorming and a free association of bright people and ideas. Thus, traditional management techniques are not effective in encouraging and nourishing invention and innovation, which at their best are unpredictable and disruptive processes. The successful strategy at Bell Labs was to let researchers loose by providing a highly supportive and problem rich environment, with excellent funding. As Arno Penzias, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Big Bang and former head of Bell labs Research, put it, you need three fundamental things, the "F-Factors", to encourage innovative thought and creative processes:
At Bell Labs the combination of the three "F-Factors" was very effective.
Funding was simple at Bell Labs. Support was decided not by a committee or a panel but by your manager, who most of the times was an excellent scientist himself, after you had discussed with him your ideas and needs.
Bell Labs ensured its people were free to pursue problems and no one pressed us to follow certain research paths. Creative people thrive on challenge and Bell made sure there were a lot of problems for us to tackle. There was also a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas, though I don’t want to give the impression that it was always easy. Peer pressure can be brutally blunt and more than once I was told, "That will never work!" It was deeply satisfying to come up with a solution to the insoluble.
Pressure was also created by the Darwinian approach at Bell Labs. If you did not come up with something significant, say within more or less five years after being hired, you would be politely asked to leave. I called the totality of the desire to tackle exciting problems and the demand to perform at your best, "good pressure." Good, because it encourages the focus necessary for major advances in science and technology.
Just as Bell Labs implemented them to encourage innovation, the "F-Factors" can guide any company toward creating an environment where innovation can thrive. A critical question is how to achieve focus without unnecessarily curtailing freedom. For that to occur, researchers must have open access to the most important problems and challenges a company faces. These problems often come in the very practical, non-academic context of new products that could be enabled by an innovation - this is the situation of a problem looking for a solution. More interesting is the opposite situation - that of a solution looking for a problem, an invention that creates a new application. Take the laser that created many applications that could not be fathomed at the time it was invented, such as fiber optic communications. IEEE Medal of Honor Herbert Kroemer in his 2000 Nobel Lecture in Physics called this process the "Lemma of New Technology": The principal applications of any sufficiently new technology have always been and will continue to be applications created by that technology. Companies, managers, funding agencies and science policy wonks should keep in mind this often forgotten wisdom in their quite often futile efforts to plan and guide research because the most impactful fruits of innovation are largely unpredictable.
Innovation at Harvard
After Bell Labs, I chose to go to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard because of its exciting broad-based interdisciplinary research. It also has a flat organizational structure with minimal barriers between people, which encourages innovation and collaboration. There are more than 10 different disciplines housed under a single dean in charge. This structure, and the presence of world-class research facilities, has helped me pursue a broad research agenda, all the way from the study of fundamental quantum mechanical forces between materials, to the manipulaton of light at the sub-wavelength scale in the quest to create new light sources with unprecedented control of the laser beams they emit. My collaborators range from atmospheric chemists and scientists growing new materials, to researchers fabricating micromechanical gizmos, to theorists seeking to shape and model the exotic forces arising from quantum fluctuations in these devices.
A critical ingredient of my approach to innovation is brainstorming. At Harvard, my group’s office area is built with plexiglass partitions and walls for my students to write on, which promotes the visualization and sharing of ideas. Sometimes we take pictures with our cell phones of the graffiti (sketches, equations, etc.) on the walls as a record of a particularly creative day. Harvard also helped me in establishing my own company, EOS Photonics, to exploit the commercialization of one of my inventions, the QC laser. Harvard has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and metamorphosed into a world leading research University in engineering and technology, beyond its traditional strength in basic science. Our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has a spirit and environment that is igniting innovative creativity in ways similar to what I had experienced at Bell Labs.
Innovation is essentially a destructive process, but it is creative destruction that forms the foundation of capitalism, a notion popularized by the great US economist Joseph Schumpeter. Innovation needs tension and turmoil, but to successfully harness these conditions requires discipline. There are creative sparks, which ignite progress with Eureka moments, but behind them is a more routine, reiterative process, which is applied by people who thrive on not knowing what will happen next.
Innovation in Application: The Quantum Cascade Laser
The laser came to being in 1960. It was the practical application of Albert Einstein’s theorizing in 1916 that predicted "stimulated emission", which is what makes a laser work. We are dealing with the very small world, the quantum world, where we are manipulating individual electrons and atoms to create a striking effect in the physical world we can see and feel: a bright, highly directional and monochromatic light beam.
I was attracted to the idea of a Quantum Cascade Laser (QC Laser) after I had invented a detector, which is a device that converts light into an electrical current. This is the opposite flow of energy from a semi-conductor laser that uses a current to produce laser light. In my detector, electrons flowing down an energy staircase created an extra electron at each step leading to an electron avalanche. I wondered whether we could do this in reverse with an injection of an electron to produce a cascade of photons as it tumbles down an energy staircase. The QC Laser concept eventually emerged from intense brainstorming within my Bell Labs team, which included brilliant young scientists such as Jerome Faist and Carlo Sirtori, and it became a reality thanks to that marvelous crystal growth technique, Molecular Beam Epitaxy, pioneered by my colleague Al Cho, which allows one to create artificial materials with man-made properties by spray-painting atoms on a surface one layer at a time.
As soon as we had a working QC Laser that could operate at room temperatures, I decided we had to share it with as a many potential users in the field. We gave QC Lasers away, at no charge, even though we were ahead of the rest of the field by at least five years. My reasoning was simple; by sharing our devices we could very quickly find and develop practical applications for our invention.
Today, QC Lasers are flown through the atmosphere to measure environmental pollution and the impact on climate change. They are also employed as ultrasensitive detectors of trace gases and vapors down to the subpart per billion level for applications in homeland security, such as the detection of explosives, for combustion diagnostics and industrial process control and for medical diagnostics, such as breath analysis. Commercialization is in full swing with 20 companies ranging from start up to billion dollar companies making and selling QC lasers. Under DARPA funding, my team at Harvard, in collaboration with Pranalytica Inc., has developed powerful continuous wave QC lasers for one of the most important Department of Defense applications, infrared countermeausures, which protect aircraft against the insidious threat of incoming shoulder fired missiles.
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