What Will the Future Look Like? Thoughts on Innovation Diversity

During my years as a member of the National Women’s Business Council (2014-2017), I began to pay attention to a woefully little known but powerful engine for innovation – the Small Business Innovation Research grant program (SBIR). Each year our federal government gives more than 2 billion dollars to small businesses throughout the country to promote very early stage research and development. Across 11 federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Defense, applications for grants of $10,000 to $2 million dollars are received, vetted, considered, awarded annually. Self-titled, “America’s Seed Fund”, SBIR positions itself as an early, early stage platform for invention and federal agencies work in partnership with companies, or as customers, to move ideas to commercialization, often over time through successive funding rounds.

Overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male

So, here’s the problem – the pipeline of innovation emerging from the federal government through this investment is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, charged by Congress to assess SBIR effectiveness, has consistently evaluated the government as failing substantially in meeting the diversity goals of the program. In fact, the last report stated agencies had regressed, not progressed..

For me, this is a striking example of the bias inherent in our nation’s technology development system – doors just don’t open as quickly or as easily for some as for others, equally capable. And it’s not only a pipeline problem – women, for example, now make up more than 50% of Ph.D. graduates in key biology and chemistry research areas in the U.S. These are thorny issues that involve bureaucratic, unconscious and conscious bias, and gendered systems’ problems.

On September 11 and 12, The Impact Seat hosted events at MIT and The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council to think with, and hear from, Dr. Jennifer Shieh, Chief Scientist & Senior Technology Policy Advisor for the office responsible for policy coordination and development for SBIR. She shared with us that women-owned small businesses submitted only 16% of all SBIR Phase I proposals, and only 13% of all Phase II proposals in 2014, the last available data year.

Women scientists don’t know what they don’t know

My investigation over the last three years shows that there are many reasons for these statistics. In a nutshell, women who own or could create R&D businesses in these realms of science are less likely to hear about the program, be encouraged to apply, or find the support they need to achieve application. This includes women PhD students and post-docs who are deciding how to develop their science or technology vis-à-vis products and services that could reach a commercial marketplace. These ideas stand for other under-represented demographic groups as well.

In our working groups with Dr. Shieh at MassBIo, a group of 20 leaders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem worked to articulate a path forward for policy in broadening the pipeline.

Why? Because it’s fair to share the wealth. Also, because we know that diversity of perspective delivers a wider set of alternatives. Some address specific needs and wants of groups historically excluded and some emerge because of the interactions that feed our understanding of what’s new, what’s different, and what’s valuable.

The Big Magic of traveling ideas

In her wonderful book, Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert celebrates the creative life. One of Gilbert’s most mind-catching notions is that good ideas have a shape of their own and they won’t stick around for long – but will travel to another person if we’re too slow in acknowledging and realizing their brilliance.

This concept appeals to me. It’s my experience that many people have good ideas that would solve problems or create opportunities. The challenge for society is to hear them, see them, taste them, smell them – to facilitate the inventor’s take on the innovation and to make room for, and support the actualization of their creativity through business practice – whether in a corporation or in the entrepreneurship marketplace. Invention shapes our society at a quick and slow pace; monumentally and incrementally.

Teresa Nelson, PhD