Lean methodologies have changed the way science is commercialized in the U.S. Now they are changing how we protect the homeland and keep Americans safe and around the world.
How the U.S. government has embraced Lean methodologies to reinvigorate its innovation efforts was the focus of the latest episode of my SiriusXM radio show, Entrepreneurs are Everywhere.
The show airs on SiriusXM Channel 111 (weekly Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern). It follows the journeys of innovators sharing what it takes to build a startup - from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.
(And download any of the past shows here.)
Clips from their interview are below.
Rep. Dan Lipinski is a six-term Congressman and on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology (and one of a handful with a doctorate). He championed the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps). I-Corps teaches scientists and engineers how to get their technical ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace using the Lean Startup processes.
Rep. Lipinski also serves on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and three of its subcommittees: Aviation; Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials; and Highways and Transit.
Innovation drives the U.S. economy, he said:
Innovation is really is the life blood of our American economy. ... looking back at the stories of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers, you look at emergence to technology innovation and what it has done for our economy.
We need to continue that. America is full of entrepreneurs, inventor and dreamers.
Coming back to Stanford, reminds me of a German friend when I was here in grad school It was 1989. He saw the movie, "Field of Dreams." I asked him what he thought about the movie and he said, "Well, that would never happen in Germany. In Germany, you'd never have some guy with a crazy idea, who'd plow under his field so he can build something like a ball park." He said, "You just would not. No one in Germany would ever believe that story but in America, things are different. Americans are dreamers. They're doers."
I think that's why we are so good at innovation. We're risk-takers.
Unfortunately it seems in this presidential election, we're in a place where we have candidates who instead of growing the pie through innovation, are talking about "How are we going to divide the existing pie differently?" ... what we really need to do is to help innovators grow the pie.
He offered context for the government's innovation efforts:
The Federal Government plays a critical role in innovation in our country and has throughout our history. If you're listening to this show on satellite radio, satellite radio was pioneered by the Department of Defense and NASA. If you're listening on the Internet, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the NSF (The National Science Foundation) were critical in developing the internet.
Most people don't know the role that the government has played and continues to play funding most of the country's technology and medical research. That research is the building block to innovative products. It's the envy of the world.
Rep. Seth Moulton is a Harvard graduate and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served four tours in Iraq, including two tours as a platoon commander and two tours as a Special Assistant to Gen. David Petraeus. He was elected to Congress in 2014 and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, the House Budget Committee and the House Small Business Committee.
He spoke about the efforts of the Department of Defense to connect the Defense and Intelligence communities with the Silicon Valley innovation mindset, with their first innovation outpost called DIUx:
Connecting to the Silicon Valley innovation culture is another way to make sure that we're doing as much as we can to protect their lives of our soldiers as they're putting their lives on the line for our country.
He acknowledged the role that the new Hacking for Defense class is playing:
There's a lot of technologies that could save American lives overseas if we could just get them to the troops and get them more quickly. It's also a great way for people around the country, whether it's in Cambridge, Mass., or out here in California, to contribute in the fight against terrorism, to help the young men and women who are out there putting their lives on the line for us.
The Cold War spurred innovation, Moulton said:
Rep. Moulton: There was a time in the 1950s and '60s, when the latest and greatest technology was coming out of the Department of Defense. Then later our advanced technology came from the civilian sector. That's why we had the most advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers and other things that we built during the Cold War.
Today, innovation isn't happening at the big defense contractors as much as it's happening right here in Silicon Valley. We've got to change them all.
Steve: The Department of Defense and House Armed Services Committee helped start an innovation outpost out here called DIUx, didn't they?
Rep. Moulton: That's right. It was a recognition in Washington's that we ought to have better connections out here. This is one of the reasons why I come to visit. Not just because I'm on the Armed Services Committee but because I'm one of the youngest members of congress and I'm one of the only member of congress who has a degree in science. I like to think that I can understand this stuff, at least better than some of my colleagues. It's important that we have these connections between Washington and the innovation that's going on out here.
As a former Marine, he has first-hand experience with the need to speed defense innovation efforts:
I remember when my GPS mapping system in my Humvee broke down when I was over in Iraq. We had to take it to the base to get reloaded and they brought out a stack of 3 ½-inch disks. A lot of listeners probably don't even remember what those are.
It was an amazing system ... in the late '80s or '90s or whatever, but now it's really out of date. The Department of Defense just hasn't been able to keep up with the pace of innovation. We would have been a lot better off with iPhones in our Humvees at the time.
We've got a lot of work to do on faster integration of innovation inside the Department of Defense. This is something that the committee right now is focused on, including the Republican chairman Mac Thornberry who's a great chairman, very bi-partisan. One of his priorities is to reform the procurement processes at the Department of Defense so that we can take advantage of all this incredible innovation that's going on right here at home.
He's also committed to improving the Veterans Administration to better serve veterans' healthcare needs, he said:
Rep. Moulton: We have a number of bills that we're working on. The most recent is called the Faster Care for Veterans Act, which directs the VA to conduct a pilot program with existing applications to make appointments on your Smart Phone.
We all know the stories of veterans who wait in line for months trying to get an appointment. It's also a problem with waiting in line on the phone to try to get through to schedule an appointment. That's what someone in my office who's a veteran was trying to do one day, and he kept, he got in this infinite loop on their phone system: Press 6. Press 2. Press 3. OK, back to the beginning. Press 6. Press 3. Press 2. Someone else in the office just made a video of it, and it went viral on Facebook.
This Faster Care for Veterans Act is totally bipartisan. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, one of the leaders in the Republican Conference, is cosponsoring it with me, and it's gotten a lot of support. My bottom line is this: Our veterans deserve the best healthcare in the world. If there's technology that's available to folks in the private sector right now, it should be available to veterans as well.
Steve: Is the problem with these institutions leadership, technology, bureaucracy that has no incentives to change, all of the above?
Rep. Moulton: It's all of the above, but I'll tell you, from my background in the Marines, I think a lot of it does come down to leadership. The leadership is starting to change. The new Secretary of the VA comes from the private sector. He's a veteran, but his experience is really in corporate America, and he's quickening the pace of innovation at the VA. So that's an example of a place where it's starting to change, but this is also why we need innovators in government.
The government does a lot of important things and so many people are just frustrated with politics today, especially with the presidential election, that they're just checking out. Actually, this is the time when people need to check in, and especially young people.
Rep. Moulton said he is inspired by the culture change he's seen during his short tenure in government:
Rep. Moulton: I like seeing new young people come into government and give some of the old bureaucrats a run for their money. We've got to improve the personnel system to give more opportunities to you young people, but I spend a lot of time as one of the youngest members of Congress just trying to get other young people involved. For some, it means potentially running some day, for others it means working on a congressional staff or just doing something else in government where you can be an important contributor to fixing some of the problems in government. ...
Steve: You've now been in the world largest bureaucracies, US military and probably the biggest bureaucracy in terms of spending, the US Congress. What still gives you hope?
Rep. Moulton: I've been pleasantly surprised by the impact that a freshman can make. I run my office like startup. I got my chief of staff from Silicon Valley. We're just trying to think outside the box and do things differently and we run into bureaucratic obstacles every single day but we don't let them stop us. Just in my own little personal experience over the past year, I've seen the difference that innovators, than an entrepreneurial spirit can make in government.
To hear the clip, click here.
Among the ways the government fosters an entrepreneurial spirit is by helping to commercialize scientific research, Rep. Lipinski said:
Rep. Lipinski: Not all research is going to be turned into some new innovation, but there are some things that can be, and that haven't been, and I think the federal government has a proper role to play in doing that.
At the Department of Energy I pushed them to create an Office of Technology Transition at the Office of Science so that they can centralize their commercialization activities.
I also was part of helping create the Technology Commercialization Fund created in 2005 to help get research out of labs and into creation of new products. The third thing at the Department of Energy is Lab Corps which is a ... version of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.
If you can't hear the clip, click here.
The NSF I-Corps is the biggest example of this effort, Rep. Lipinski said. To date, more than 800 teams of scientists and engineers have gone through the program which is built on the Lean LaunchPad curriculum.
I don't have a background as an entrepreneur. It's not something that's in my blood so I honestly had never really thought to myself, "If I had an idea, how would I go about trying to do something with that idea?"
Your Lean LaunchPad class, which became the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, made complete sense to me, to my engineer mind.
You have an idea but before you say, "I'm just going to launch myself full-force into it," you must find out, "Does this idea make sense to customers? Do people really want this product?" Maybe they want something a little bit different. You need to get out of the lab to figure that out. ...
As someone who was a university professor, I know what some professors are like. These are extremely intelligent people, but they spend all their time in the lab. You really don't know until you get out and you ask questions, and find out what are people really looking for.
The idea of taking a professor, a graduate student working under the professor and they get together with an entrepreneur -- someone who has the experience -- and work as a team, going through the whole Customer Development and Lean Startup process ... just made complete sense to me and I thought everyone would see that. I thought there was no question.
This is so obvious. First of all, I don't know why no one came up with this before, and once people hear this they're going to feel like I feel: This is such a great idea, we've got to do everything we can to promote this and spread this.
But while the idea was a no-brainer to Rep. Lipinski, he had to convince others on Capitol Hill to support the program:
Well first of all I got a lot of pushback on the Science Committee. Questions about "Well, should we be choosing winners and losers here?"
A lot of members, mostly Republicans -- OK all Republicans -- would say, "Solyndra. Remember Solyndra? Remember that our government put all that money into this solar company and it went under, so why are we going to pick winners and losers like this? That's something the market should do."
The other thing was, "Well, the National Science Foundation should not be doing this. The National Science Foundation should just be doing basic research. This is not an area the NSF should be in."
Although if you go back to the original charter of the NSF it clearly lays out that it is something that they should be in. I said, "Look, this is about education. NSF certainly is about education, what we're doing is educating professors and graduate students about how to be an entrepreneur."
I still could not get a hearing on the Innovation Corps. ... This is the way politics works:
I was the top Democrat on the Research and Technology subcommittee. Mo Brooks, the Republican chair of the subcommittee, said to me, "I want to have a hearing in my district. If you come to my district for a hearing I'll come to your district and do a hearing and you can pick whatever topic you want." So I said OK.
We went down to Huntsville, Ala., he did something with local educators about science education and I said "OK, I want to have a hearing in Chicago. It actually has nothing to do with anything locally," but this was my chance finally to say "I'm going to bring Steve Blank in and others from the NSF and we're going to talk about the Innovation Corps." That was the first hearing.
I tell you, things have certainly turned around since then and I think the Innovation Corps has really been embraced in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill by both sides of the aisle.
The program has had a tremendous impact, he added:
There aren't that many things that get done in Washington these days, not many things, especially, that really work. I tell you that day that I came out to Stanford, and sat in on your class, met with you, talked with you, I came out of there thinking this is just an incredible idea.
After the NSF I-Corps had been running for a while I visited and heard the presentations from the I-Corps teams and then saw companies developing from those ideas, venture capital coming to some of these companies that were being formed, I realized this is something that it really works and it's something that I championed that was right - and good for the country.
The NSF I-Corps is a great idea, something the government needs to really continue to invest in, and I'm very proud of this maybe more than anything else that I've been a part of in the 12 years that I've been in Congress because it's working and making a difference.
Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.
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