In the past, corporate labs filled a particular niche in the innovation ecosystem

For obvious reasons the niche is a bit nebulous, but we can perhaps get a sense of it by feeling around the edges and looking at what sorts of things happened at Bell Labs and Xerox PARC that don’t seem to be happening now. While corporate labs (Including Bell Labs and PARC themselves) still exist, Corporate labs no longer fill the niche they did in the early-mid twentieth century.

The niche corporate labs once occupied still needs to be filled.

The trick is to try to distinguish the “what” from the “how.” The What is the immutable characteristics of the activities that we want to try to recreate while The How is the particular set of tactics and strategies Bell Labs used to achieve The What. It’s important to distinguish between the two because we might need to use different tactics to achieve the same things in a new context. If you just blindly followed everything it would be ineffective and Cargo cult-y.

The other caveat is that there are exceptions to all of these. Startups and academic groups exist that embody these characteristics and not all golden age corporate labs did all these things all the time.

What were the characteristics of this niche?

  1. Ideally corporate R&D enables work on a general purpose technology before it’s specialized
  2. Ideally corporate R+D enables targeted dicking around - specifically with equipment and collaborators who would not otherwise be accessible (Bell labs brought many disciplines together under the same roof and broke down barriers between them)
  3. Corporate labs enabled high-collaboration research work among larger and more diverse groups of people than in academia or startups.
  4. Corporate labs enabled very smooth transitions of technologies along the Technology readiness level - TRL curve. Corporate labs cared both about novelty and scale. Academia incentivizes novelty, not focus.
  5. Corporate labs provided a default customer for a lot of process improvements and default scale for products.
  6. Corporate labs often provided a precise set of problems and feedback loops about whether solutions actually solved those problems.
  7. Corporate labs provided a first-class alternative to academia where people could still participate in the scientific enterprise. Different institutions have created monopolies on various enterprises
  8. Corporate labs enabled continuous work on a project on a 6+ year timescale. The work to create the transistor took eight years (because of a gap created by WWII) and making it mass manufacturable took another eight.
  9. Corporate labs enabled work in Pasteur’s Quadrant (Book) - explorations into natural phenomena with eye towards exploiting those phenomena for human flourishing (and profit.)

I suspect that there is strong overlap between this niche and We have no flying cars - failures of paradigm-shifting engineering.

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