True Innovation Alive and Well in the Clean Energy Space

The New York Times recently ran an excellent profile of Bell Labs by Jon Gertner entitled “True Innovation.” The pieces attributes much of the Labs’ success to onetime chairman of the board Mervin Kelly, who gave researchers time and substantial research autonomy – out of the recognition that true innovation is a product of time-consuming exploration of high-risk ideas. Gertner ends the profile in part lamenting contemporary companies’ emphasis on the quick payoff in regard to innovation. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that an institution that takes the long-view when it comes to research and specifically encourages high-risk, high-reward breakthroughs still exists today. That institution, ARPA-E, is very much cut from the same cloth as Bell Labs. To be sure, there are key differences between ARPA-E and Bell Labs. The former’s efforts are specifically targeted at transformational energy research while the latter was much more fundamental or “blue sky” in its approach. Also, whereas ARPA-E – a governmental entity – identifies and supports promising technologies, the privately-owned Bell Labs developed technologies in-house. Nevertheless, the organizations are linked by a common commitment to “move deliberately and build things,” as Gertner puts it. “This is what ARPA-E is all about: invent a new learning curve and let it compete with other technologies that are out there,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said during his keynote speech at the recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Furthermore, like Bell Labs, ARPA-E recognizes that it may be years before its investments pan out.