Innovation at Large Scale: A Glimpse of this Thursday’s XSITE Keynote by Intellectual Ventures’ Edward Jung

Xconomy Boston — 

Every day in the world’s great science and technology clusters, brilliant people go to work thinking about innovation—how to innovate in research, how to build and grow startups, how to keep innovating at public companies so the startups don’t eat their lunch. Edward Jung admires all that work, but believes it can only go so far—that it can’t provide solutions to the world’s biggest problems. For that, he believes, you need a whole new approach to innovation.

Call it Innovation at Large Scale. And it will be the topic of Jung’s keynote talk at XSITE 2011 (the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship), which takes place this Thurday, June 16, at Babson College in Wellesley, MA.

Along with noted visionary Nathan Myhrvold and two other colleagues, Jung is a co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, the Seattle-area intellectual property firm best known for buying and licensing patents around the world—and for bringing top thinkers together for brainstorming “invention sessions” to create new patents. He is also the former chief architect of Microsoft.

I spoke with Jung last week to learn more about his planned talk at XSITE. I have to say I was expecting something about the importance of invention and patenting. But it turned out he is going to talk about how to bring innovation to some of the world’s biggest and most pressing problems—health care, energy, and the like. “It’s new and it’s not really just about Intellectual Ventures,” Jung told me.

I don’t want to steal too much of Jung’s thunder in advance of XSITE. But here are some notes from our conversation.

First, he’s talking about a model of innovation that actively involves government—rather than asks government to get out of the way. That’s because the problems he means to tackle are so huge and fundamental, government has to be involved. “There’s a whole bunch of problems to solve,” Jung says. “Whether dealing with healthcare in the developing world, or very large-scale problems through energy. It’s at a scale of problem that a single startup can’t solve, and it’s very inefficient to try to create lots of startups. Large companies can’t solve them either.”

One example he gave involves diagnostics medicine and that much-envisioned day when an array of diagnostic sensors—genomic, proteomic, visual, chemical, and behavioral—might warn us in advance of disease risk factors and provide tailored preventative treatments as well as personalized therapeutic regimens. A host of firms, such as Kaiser Permanente, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Baxter, Unilever, Walmart, and even IT powerhouses like Microsoft, Google, Intel, and Cisco—which might provide ways to store and access personal medical information—have released their own visions of the field and how their companies fit into them.

But each of these organizations, no matter how large and important, is only one bit player in what diagnostics medicine will ultimately become, and therefore their roadmaps only point to a piece of the field’s future. Think of a passenger airline industry without an Airbus or Boeing—that’s what diagnostics medicine is today, Jung says. “It’s like having a whole bunch of companies that make parts for airplanes try to talk about the vision of the airplane,” he says. What’s more, he adds, “You have no such uber company for a lot of the problems that were looking at.”

Since hundreds of separate companies aren’t going to spontaneously assemble themselves into a solution, “this is one of the cases where a government has to step in and play a role,” Jung says.

Specifically what’s needed, he says, is a master architect or “integrator” to contract with companies to provide all the pieces and then weave them together into a system that works. Now before you shout out—“Hold on, Uncle Sam as integrator, give me a break”—that’s NOT what Jung says the government should be doing. Instead, he says government should de-risk these big efforts by providing long-term guaranteed funding. It should then choose an integrator—in much the way NASA chose the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to manage its Mars Exploration Rover Project.

“Lots of new innovation can be tapped if you can just unlock the integration problem,” says Jung. The government can’t be that integrator, but it can be a demand customer who “changes the risk profile” of taking on big problems—both for large companies and startups, he says.

I’ll leave it to Jung to fully explain what he means at XSITE—and then hopefully answer some of your questions. I’m really looking forward to his talk, though, which will add an important dimension to our discussion of the Entrepreneurship Era, the theme of this year’s conference. We have speakers from startups, universities, public companies, and venture firms—including Desh Deshpande, Gilt Groupe founder Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Biogen founder and Nobel Laureate Phil Sharp, TripAdvisor’s Stephen Kaufer, and Todd Dagres of Spark Capital.

Jung’s talk figures to be the icing on the cake—as it brings the entrepreneurship and innovation discussion to mega problems and projects, including how government fits into the picture. Register here. I hope to see you on Thursday.