July 1, 2004
U.S. government should improve support of innovation

U.S. government should improve support of innovation

I like to browse through your "World News" section because it provides fresh, unbiased, and in-depth information. The article "Scotland funds optical lock" by Bridget Marx (May, p. 56), however, stirred up many emotions.

On the one hand, I am happy for Jeremy Rice who gets moral and financial support from the Scottish government for the entrepreneurial work he is doing on his "Optilock" idea. On the other hand, my great disappointment is that this work was already done in the United States more than 20 years ago when I developed and patented a similar device called "Opto-electronic lock." The extreme security and zero noise interface with computerized equipment offered by my design produced hot discussions at Detroit automotive seminars and encouraging interest at the annual "Invention" show held by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

Unfortunately, significant savings offered by incorporating this design into automotive production and the policies of the three major auto makers with regard to implementing outside patents precluded any further steps toward utilization of this device. Unlike the Scottish government, the U.S. government not only did not provide for development, but also refused to make it a part of the "Auto Theft Prevention Act" of 1984. It was more convenient to charge automotive customers extra for marking chassis and so forth than to pay some insignificant royalties for significant cost reduction and extreme security. During that time I learned how ineffective and counterproductive the U.S. government is in supporting individual entrepreneurs.

The U.S. government system of support for innovation was developed back in 19th and 20th centuries. It reflects the needs and methods of that time, when the U.S. had a strong world-dominating economy in which cash-rich giant corporations were directing their research into the frontiers of science and technology. The very basis of this system is government support of projects that are necessitated by government agencies such as DOD, DOE, NASA, etc. The system is well established and provides significant financial support for corporations that are the so-called "prime contractors," as well as college and university-based research.

There are small windows of opportunity for nonroutine cases such as NSF small-business grants or NIST R&D programs. Unfortunately, they are all inadequate and useless for the individual entrepreneur with long-term groundbreaking ideas. The only venue left for these entrepreneurs is to seek financial support from individuals called "angels," venture capital firms, or large corporations. All these sources are financially vulnerable, narrowly specialized, and short-term-profit oriented.

With economic globalization and distinctly different approaches used by foreign governments in support of individual entrepreneurs and long-term groundbreaking projects, the United States can lose its leading edge by adhering to the archaic traditional policies.

Serious changes should be made in U.S. government policies for support of innovation to foster individual entrepreneurs with long-term, high-risk projects. Only by doing so will we open new horizons for advanced technologies that will be further mastered by mature industries. Otherwise, we will find ourselves crippled by an outdated technological base and archaic educational system.

Val Parker
Pittsford, NY
[email protected]

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