Bill Gates’s favorite author on why American innovation is in trouble

November 26, 2013

Bill Gates’s preferred author isn’t bullish on American innovation. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, gave a great interview to Wired recently. Smil isn’t widely known, but should be. “I’m trying to read everything he writes. Why? He understands a phenomenal range of subjects,” Gates has written.

Smil had this to say about innovation and outsourced manufacturing:

Innovation is not done by research institutes and national laboratories. It comes from manufacturing—from companies that want to extend their product reach, improve their costs, increase their returns. What’s very important is in-house research. Innovation usually arises from somebody taking a product already in production and making it better: better glass, better aluminum, a better chip. Innovation always starts with a product.

Look at LCD screens. Most of the advances are coming from big industrial conglomerates in Korea like Samsung or LG. The only good thing in the U.S. is Gorilla Glass, because it’s Corning, and Corning spends $700 million a year on research. …

Look at the crown jewel of Boeing now, the 787 Dreamliner. The plane had so many problems — it was like three years late. And why? Because large parts of it were subcontracted around the world. The 787 is not a plane made in the USA; it’s a plane assembled in the USA. They subcontracted composite materials to Italians and batteries to the Japanese, and the batteries started to burn in-flight. The quality control is not there.

Gates has an eye for great minds. He really ought to have some sort of online book club.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | November 26, 2013