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Doubling down on American deep tech innovation

Doubling down on American deep tech innovation
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“America is the most innovative country in the world.”

It’s something you hear all the time.

And it’s true. You only need to look to the first lunar landing, the microchip, GPS, and the success of companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and numerous others to see it’s so. American innovation has pioneered new fields, powered technologies, and fueled software and services (not to mention the stock market) extremely well for decades.

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But the United States risks falling behind in critical technology areas, leaving our supply chains vulnerable and our national security in jeopardy. We’re failing to invest in critically important industries and letting our great power competition adversaries like China take the lead.

How could the most innovative country in the world let that happen?

Basically, our current investment models don’t value “deep tech” — long-term, slow-return industrial innovation.

We can and must do something about that.

Much of America’s technical advancement in the 20th century came from industrial labs like General Electric, Bell Labs, and DuPont. Their focus on research and development (R&D) drove numerous innovations — from the invention of the radio to major advances in the modern electrical grid, transportation systems, commercial flight, energy, and more — all major contributions to building the American economy.

As we moved into the information age, America changed how it innovates. We pivoted basic research into our universities, while redefining applied R&D and tech commercialization through the lens of Silicon Valley, where being successful typically follows the venture capital model: “Out of every ten early-stage investments, two will create all the returns and the rest will underperform.”

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The venture capital model works well for software and services, but it doesn’t work for deep tech, which requires different risk-reward economics. As the nature of corporate R&D investment in applied research has changed and federal R&D investments have tapered off in recent years, China’s top-down industrial policy is already outpacing the United States in certain sectors.

We must break free from the risk-reward economics of the venture capital model to fuel American deep tech innovation. But how?

The incoming Biden administration has proposed a $300 billion investment in R&D over four years. This has the potential to be transformative.

In each deep tech area (e.g., quantum, artificial intelligence, telecommunications, semiconductors, biotech), we need a strategy that produces durable impact to our economy, tackling both the engineering challenges today and investing in R&D that will fuel sustained impact tomorrow.

We must orchestrate its execution across our federal R&D agencies, economic development efforts, acquisition programs, and regulatory agencies. This whole-of-government approach must then extend into a whole-of-nation approach through public-private partnerships with industry and academia, which are critical allies in this endeavor.

We are starting to see a glimmer of this in the U.S. strategy around Fifth Generation (5G) mobile broadband. The Department of Defense is launching base trials to solve near-term engineering issues with 5G and accelerate deployment, while also exploring new use cases that could be transformative to industry. Pending legislation would fund the Department of Commerce to catalyze investment in new open base station technologies that could upend China’s economic advantage. The Federal Communications Commission is working on a range of regulatory actions to reduce barriers to 5G deployments and make more spectrum available. Finally, the Next G Alliance is bringing together industry to work with federal R&D sponsors on 6G technology to provide a long-term competitive advantage for the United States.

However, this all-hands-on-deck approach to 5G took years to come into focus, while China steadily grew its global advantage. We cannot afford such delays in other critical deep tech areas.

And yet, that’s exactly what we’re facing.

The National Quantum Initiative is focused too heavily on basic research and needs to incorporate applied engineering, commercialization, and workforce strategies. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is releasing a whole slate of great recommendations, but someone needs to implement them. And pending legislation to advance semiconductor R&D and manufacturing would help promote America’s leadership in an important technology area — were it to be enacted.

The challenge before us is that we are legislating one-off strategies for every deep tech area, rather than a platform that can repeatably and systematically innovate.

One approach would be to expand the mission of the National Science Foundation and infuse it with new research money. Such a proposition — which is also the focus of pending legislation in Congress — could serve as the repeatable platform we desperately need. It could go a long way towards helping us achieve our industrial innovation goals and meet China’s challenge. 

So, yes, America is still innovative. But the pace of innovation in key areas has lagged in past decades. For our safety and prosperity, we must waste no time in turning this around.

Charles Clancy is senior vice president, general manager of MITRE Labs, and chief futurist. The opinion expressed is the author’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of MITRE.