The Unbearable Lightness of Innovation

March 9, 2017 |

A few days ago, the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference (ABLC) wrapped up, and I am reviewing the notes about so many companies in Stealth Mode, that you’d think it was a place, like Silicon Valley or Times Square.

Stealth Mode. It’s so fashionable, it ought to be worn on the runways this spring by the models of Paris.  No one will ever criticize you for it. In fact, they’ll praise you for being circumspect, and for holding off talking about a technology until there’s really something to talk about. Who could oppose such a logic?

But Stealth Mode is a company killer, because of the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation.

In an early scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, author Milan Kundera offers the example of the Late Quartets of Beethoven, written by a man gone almost completely deaf, who scribbled the enigmatic text on the manuscript “Es Muss Sein!” — (It Must Be!).

And Kundera wrote:

“We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the “Es muss sein!” to our own great love.” 

Beethoven was certain. You are certain. Many voices are certain, and often set in implacable opposition. The one is sure that only Trump can save America. The other is certain that America must be saved from Trump.  The din of certainty is loud, yet the noise is replete with opposing points of view.

Markets are noisy with competing ideas, yet Stealth Mode is noisy, too. Stealth Mode doesn’t mean “talk to no one”. It simply means, talk to a few people. Co-investors, early-stage financiers, families and friends, friendly executives at companies that might be strategically useful. There’s all kinds of talking that goes on in Stealth Mode. The idea behind Stealth is not quietness, but control.

To the people who can help us — for example, someone we want to recruit for our company, we can’t stop talking about our great idea and its promise.

In Stealth Mode, we sign up employees, we raise capital, we set milestones to be achieved, we make progress in the lab — we shout to a very small community of supporters, but we are shouting. That’s Stealth Mode — it’s not about silence, but in limiting the audience for our noise.

As if we could Really Know the Direction Ventures Will Take

As if we could really know, at the outset, all the people, all the relationships, by which and through which a company will be successful, a technology will be successful. Imagine the people we might have talked to about the possibilities of investing a microwave oven, in stealth mode. Perhaps executives at consumer electronics companies, retailing firms, venture funds focused on consumer products. Yet, microwave oven technology was invented quite by accident when a researcher working with microwaves noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.

These partners, this pathway Must Be!

Who really must be our friends and allies? Is there some Es Muss Sein! list of them? Do we really know? Do we really know all that much at all? Do we know enough to know exactly who is a friend, who can know everything, and who is an enemy, and must know nothing?

We don’t always know where our technologies will take us. Fermentation technology wasn’t developed because of its fuel properties but because of its applications for food — yet, it was extended to fuels. By contrast, algae fermentation was developed to bring forward an affordable fuel, but has been extended now to foods and looks like it will be a big hit there.

Discovery affects the progress of innovation, we all know that. But fashion does, too. The cycles of fashion will affect you, my friend, just as they affect the clothing designers of Paris.

Biofuels were fashionable perhaps 10 years ago, and felt out of fashion over the questions of food vs fuel. Hydrogen, before that, before that the EV-1. For a while, algae, algae, algae was the answer, then “Drill Baby Drill!”, and then renewable aviation fuels. For a time, fracking was the rage, then renewable chemicals, all-electric cars, the inevitable rise of the BRIC nations, Plant Bottles, then the possibilities of natural gas as a base for fuels and chemicals, and the dangers posed by ISIS.

Now, there’s fashionable idea that oil prices will be low forever to replace the idea that oil prices will have climbed into the stratosphere by 2014 and will never fall back to earth.

Today, we have a fashionable concern about depletion of aquifers, China’s intentions in the South China Sea, and genetically modified organisms, to name a few. A few of these become enduring concerns and spawn industries that fundamentally change society, not many.

The Uncertainty Principle

We rarely confess uncertainty, yet we invest in portfolios instead of sure things, share risks via insurance, keep spare goods unused on the shelf against a hurricane, and to save aggressively for a rainy day even when we pray fervently that it never comes. We are certain of our success, yet we hedge our prospects. “Insofar as I know,” that’s about the best our civilization can do.

But in Stealth Mode, you are practising the Es Muss Sein! approach:

My technology must be liked by these people. It must be successful in this sector. It must be developed along this path. These investors must be interested in supporting this. The financial prospects must be as I have imagined them to be. The relationships I need must be accessible to me via the contacts I already have, or my stakeholders already have.

Truth be told, we know very little about where the future will take the market, or technologies, or people. What we have is not the Certainty of Progress of a Certain Type. But the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation. It may be that a certain idea will become successful. But there may well be developments in competing technologies, the economy, policy, finance, or supply chains that will make something impossible that once seemed inevitable. We invest hard dollars into soft conceptions of the future, and that is why Innovation has an Unbearable Lightness to it.

“Insofar as I know”

“Insofar as I know” It’s a common phrase, one that comes from an uncommon time.

The Greeks were the very first known society that had a phrase for it — οὕτω τὴν γνώμην ἔχετε, literally, “to the extent I possessed the known”. It arrived around 500BC. They say that there is nothing new under the sun. But not that day, not that sun. It was a new idea in expression.

The confession of intellectual doubt, of the limits of knowing, of the rationale for sustained inquiry to relieve doubt. There almost nothing of it in Homer. But Thucydides is replete with it, and Herodotus too.

In older literature we have the Undoubting word of God (or Gods) and the certainty of Lawgivers from Lycurgus to Hammurabi. Cuneiform tablets gave statistics, and occasionally stories. But they do not contain doubt.

Doubt arrived after 1000 BC, and it grew. Our markets today are dominated not by what we know, but what we doubt. We call it portfolio theory — you might call it the mutual fund. But it is all a big pile of doubt, a pile of οὕτω τὴν γνώμην ἔχετε.

The rise of doubt

Xenophon used the phrase 10 times more than Plato or Aristotle; confession of doubt wasn’t really in vogue at The Academy. But Xenophon, as a soldier amongst the 10,000 Greeks fighting their way through Asia in the early 4th century BC, was traveling in a New World, that was framed in shortages, conflicts, travels and an expansion of the rate of knowledge that perplexed and frightened the previous generation of Greeks and also the many tribes that Xenophon encountered in their battles and sojourns. He wrote of it in his volume Anabasis, literally “the up-going”, but by which he meant not only a journey of miles, but of ideas and experience. Anabasis has the sense in the Greek that “coming of age” has in our own language and time.

To Xenophon, knowledge was almost a physical thing. That is why they used the word “ἔχώ” to describe what you did with knowledge. That’s the word meaning “to hold, to possess”. You held it; you possessed it. We retain something of that, even today, in our idea of knowledge transfer and intellectual property.

Think about those words. Transfer. Property. They are about the physicality of knowledge.

To the Greeks, a γνώμην (in our Roman alphabet, gnomon, meaning “something that is known” — which lives on in English via words like agnostic, or the Gnostic Gospels), was quite literally a thing.

It was, as it happens, the upright piece on a sundial, that which creates the shadow that allowed a Greek something very precious, knowledge of the time of day. With it, they could measure the passage of time, and thereby calculate the rate at which physical things happen. They could synchronize actions across great distances, and coordinate attacks by land and sea even when forces were blind. A skill that saved Athens from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.

The gnomon throws a shadow which they called a stoikheon, literally a measure of distance, the foot-length of the shadow which indicated the time.

From there it acquired the sense of the elemental unit of time, and was extended to mean the measure of what is elemental in things. When we began to understand the nature of atoms and chemical reactions, there appeared a science called “stoichiometry”. It’s the balance sheet of chemical reactions.  You can’t turn water into wine in the way medieval alchemists hoped, because the atoms don’t add up. That’s stoichiometry. But throw in a little Glad Wrap? That works, if you had the right process and applied sufficient energy. Ethylene and water really are components of alcohol.

Divided by a common language

I mention these things as a confession of difference. That you and I speak different languages, or to use Churchill’s phrase, that we are “divided by a common language”.  What you say and what I hear are different things.

And that is one of the sources of the doubt that plagues you as you develop projects in the face of doubt, seek finance in the face of doubt, and seek freedom to operate in the face of doubt.

You come from the word of science, the world of changing feedstocks into foods, feed, fiber and fuel. So when you say “stoichiometry”, you mean something that is fundamental, discoverable, applicable, balanced, irrefutable and true. Something to lean on and depend on, in the pursuit of knowledge and in the practice of innovation. You come from the world of science — of certainty.

Yet you seek to act in the world of people, investments, and relationships, and fashionable ideas — the world of uncertainty.

When I hear ‘stoichiometry’, my mind drifts to sundials and Xenophon and the 10-year journey of the 10,000, and how much that they saw that was new, and how little they understood of it. They were able to measure the length of a shadow but knew nothing of the rotation of the earth on a tilted axis that throws all sundials off excepting two days per year. You might say they knew just enough to be dangerous.

Beethoven’s Es Muss Sein! is grounded in the ideals of science. It assumes that I possess the knowledge, and I know that I possess the knowledge, and I know the significance of that knowledge, and I know all the stakeholders that will be impacted by that knowledge and how they will be impacted.”

But is that so? Do you, really?

Or rather, is the market more about the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation? The uncertainties of what will happen tomorrow and the certainties of what costs and risks we must incur to have a seat at the table when the future is revealed and the winning technologies and companies anointed with oil.

If you find yourself unable to finance a game-changing technology, or to recruit people or government agencies or companies that should be allies — if progress is impeded, think about the Unbearable Lightness of Innovation.

Perhaps resolve yourself, this day, to do something different, to march not along the known path-lines based on your certainty of the applications of your ideas, or the companies it might serve, or the individuals it might appeal to — but along broader lines.

Talk up directions, rather than solutions, seek alignment, build coalitions, advertise the journey instead of the destination. People, in the end, invest in directions rather than people or ideas. Who, investing in Google 10 years ago, could have forecasted all the changes in personnel and technologies?

And, think about avoiding stealth mode, friend. I suspect it will do you more harm than good. Insofar as I know.

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