Bob metcalfe is founder of 3Com and a VC at Polaris Venture Partners. He's also a professor of innovation at the University of Texas, Austin. He spoke with reporter Adam Bluestein.
What's the secret to maintaining a culture of innovation?
Most of us don't spend every day innovating--we're executing and implementing. If you have an ongoing business, it's hard to innovate, because innovation likely threatens what you have. It's a survival instinct; it's like your business's immune system is trying to kill innovation.
How do you override that immune system?
There are various mechanisms for isolating innovation from the immune system, such as skunkworks or spinoffs or spin-ins, in which you bring something in from the outside. Big Pharma is very good at this. Even though the innovation is coming from the outside--often a university or start-up--your company completes the experience, through refinements to the product or the scale-up of manufacturing. Start-ups also are a solution, since they don't have any immune system.
Does a business really need to be innovative to be successful?
There are all kinds of innovation. Doing old things well requires small, incremental innovation--and we need a better vocabulary for talking about this.
But if we want to have freedom and prosperity, we need innovation, because that's what creates economic growth and jobs.