20 February 2015

Confusing STEM Education, Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Innovation is a form of technological invention. Human genome sequencing that results from a swab from the inside of your cheek, for instance. Or mounting lightweight cameras onto helmets or drones to capture video of skiing from the perspective of the skier or the surfer from the perspective of a sea gull, for example.

Entrepreneurship is a form of social invention. 23andMe, the company that sells a personal genome test, for instance. Or GoPro, the company that sells cameras for use in odd places like drones or dashboards, or example.

The skills for innovation and entrepreneurship can overlap but they don't have to. By 1900, Andrew Carnegie was probably the richest man in the world. Carnegie's early success depended on a process patented by Henry Bessemer. Carnegie was a businessperson who knew how to solve new problems with strong, affordable steel that could be used to build skyscrapers and railroads. Steve Jobs did not invent the computer (although his partner Steve Wozniak did make some advances in circuit board design that helped to evolve it).

You could be innovative but not entrepreneurial. R&D labs are full of brilliant scientists who really could not tell you the commercial application of their efforts. And of course you can be entrepreneurial without being innovative. Starbucks original founders did not invent coffee roasting. McDonalds' Dick and Mac (fortunately for us, their most famous burger was named after Mac) did not invent the hamburger. The original founders of these companies were not even the ones who made the brands wildly successful. Ray Kroc and Howard Schulz have their names forever associated with McDonalds and Starbucks because they made them an international success and took the companies public.

There is a great deal of emphasis on STEM education - science, technology, engineering, and math majors. This is nice. It helps with innovation and we can always use more STEM graduates. They're probably the group least likely to be unemployed.

But even STEM graduates might not become innovators. They might not develop new technologies and products. That depends on particular sorts of institutions as varied as good grad schools, a strong financial community willing to bet on long-shots (venture capitalists, for instance) and strong R&D labs within universities and corporations.

And of course, those innovators may never become entrepreneurs. The skills required for product invention do not automatically lend themselves to entrepreneurship.

On that note, here is a fascinating chart that shows the gap between STEM and innovation. The gap between innovation and entrepreneurship is even wider. The policies that encourage each are very different but it's not obvious that policy makers make that distinction.

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