If you could learn about innovation from an entrepreneur who holds more than 85 patents--and is the co-founder of three promising nanotechnology startups with a combined 200 employees--you'd probably jump on that chance. 

Especially if that entrepreneur also happened to be an MIT professor. 

That's why I was eager to hear what serial entrepreneur Vladimir Bulović, also Associate Dean for Innovation at MIT's School of Engineering, had to say in his Oct. 1 keynote address, called "Redefining Innovation." He gave the talk at Innovation Day 2015, an annual conference hosted by Cambridge Consultants, a design, innovation, and product-development firm based in Boston.  

Bulović did not disappoint. Here are three big ideas he emphasized, using examples from his private sector career and his daily involvement with the MIT community: 

1. Solar energy will one day power more than you think. 

One of Bulović's startups, Ubiquitous Energy, is developing transparent solar technologies you can use on any surface. In plainer English, the company makes clear coatings for use on the displays of Kindles or another mobile devices. "You'd never have to recharge it again," said Bulović. The reason? The coating would catch enough solar power and ambient light to give the device a seemingly infinite amount of power. 

This technology--the name of the field is transparent photovoltaics--also has the capability to power office buildings, if you apply it to the windows of the buildings. In addition, it could provide perpetual power to hearing aids, if you put the coating on, say, your eyeglasses.  

2. There will always be opportunies for startups in hardware. 

"It takes a decade to invent a new hardware technology," says Bulović. In some cases it takes even longer. He pointed to examples as diverse as the zipper, velcro, high-powered microscopes, and the OLED screen displays on Samsung Galaxy phones. In each case, the hardware innovation reached the hands of customers or users more than 10 years after the initial technology was invented. The Ziploc bag is another example. 

Why do paradigm-shifting hardware innovations take such a long time to reach the marketplace? For one thing, hardware requires the making of actual objects. And if the objects are game-changers, then the manufacturer isn't only making the object: Usually the manufacturer also has to make the machines that make the object. Especially if the object is a bona fide, groundbreaking piece of nanotechnology. 

By contrast, you can build, test, launch, and sell a new software app in a six-month span. With hardware, the initial building and testing are a significant, cash-draining challenge. 

And when it comes to the selling, innovative hardware makers face the same challenges anyone with a never-seen-before product faces: They are often subverting or reinventing traditional categories. Consider, as a hypothetical example, how you'd sell Ubiquitous Energy's transparent photovoltaics coatings for use in an office building. To whom would you actually sell them? The landlord? The tenant? Window makers? Contractors? Architects?

Likely all of the above. And that's no easy task. 

Given these realities, Bulović notes, there will always be opportunities for startups in hardware. For established companies with balance sheets to burnish, investments in slow-reward hardware innovations will never look as flattering as investments in quick-to-market software. The difficult part is keeping your startup alive long enough to see the idea become a product. 

3. The next big innovations won't come just from the private sector. 

Large companies face immense pressure to make their numbers each quarter. Their budgets for innovation or research and development are already under scrutiny--and often difficult to justify to the bean counters. Which is why so many large companies feel more comfortable hoarding their capital for acquisitions. 

Intellectual property partnerships with universities are a potential solution for large companies seeking to access cutting-edge research without harming their capital-return metrics. 

The university wins too, by getting a market-driven sense of how to prioritize its research efforts. "Universities are amazing at inventing things that don't matter," says Bulović. "We can solve any problem. We just don't know what the [relevant] problems are." 

In other words, Bulović believes that university-corporate partnerships can provide a useful creative constraint on the school's entrepreneurial ecosystem. It can help a school's efforts go from interesting inventions to real-world innovations--products with the potential for legitimate marketplace impact, even if it's decades down the road. 

Published on: Oct 1, 2015