Saturday, June 9, 2012

Seeking a Model

I've written before about Pixar. It's an inspiring tale about a handful of dedicated dreamers, seeking a means to transform computer generated imagery, with the aim to produce a feature-length animated film entirely of computer-generated graphics. After more than two decades, they accomplished that vision, and today the technology is ubiquitous. They began life in 1974 as a team of researchers at the New York Institute of Technology under Ed Catmull, absorbed by George Lucas' Computer Division at Lucas Films around 1979, purchased at a fire sale by Steve Jobs in 1986, then eventually acquired by Disney.

E Ink is another firm that started with a bold vision to transform a field. E Ink Corporation started in 1997 as a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab. In 2006 Sony adopted E Ink's ePaper display, followed in 2007 with Amazon's launch of the Kindle also with E Ink's electronic paper.

The difficulty with these models is that the first was driven by the profligate investment by a series of billionaires caught up in the vision (or oblivious to it, depending on your point of view): Alexander Shure; George Lucas; Steve Jobs. Alvy Ray Smith (one of the original team of researchers, and an eventual founder of Pixar) has called these three "accidental visionaries". The second was a spin-off from a prominent lab at a storied university that attracted large sums of venture capital early on ($15.8m when it was a year old, and another $37m two years later).

What then is a bootstrap entrepreneur to do, whose innovations don't result from a hefty investment by an institution of higher learning, that doesn't immediately attract the interest and funding from deep pockets? That is the dilemma. I've come to realize that many models exist to follow for an entrepreneur whose ideas are quick to the market and straightforward, where a clearly defined product is the first order of business.

But what of innovations like computer graphics or electronic paper? These are platform technologies, visionary, transformative. They involve the creation of something entirely novel, not merely the repackaging of existing technologies. Their potential is far greater, and wide-reaching, but the case for investment is more convoluted. The models for a Research Entrepreneur in such a field is rather difficult to find. Finding or establishing the path is the journey and task I have embraced.

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