This, to me, is a shocking market failure. Both wind and solar technologies require tremendous capital expenditures before they can be brought to the market and scale up to production. In contrast, a radically improved internal combustion engine could be easily produced with existing industrial capabilities and quickly dropped into the global car production cycle. This technology could also do more to quickly reduce carbon emissions, national oil dependency and general transportation costs than either wind or solar. You don’t need to get any Environmental Impact Statements, which solar and wind power developers must complete.
In healthcare, a huge source of waste is in unnecessary diagnostic tests. According to Thomson Reuters, unwarranted treatment, such as the overuse of antibiotics and the use of diagnostic lab tests to protect against malpractice exposure, accounts for $250 billion to $325 billion in annual healthcare spending. One approach would be to reduce the amount of this care — lab tests, in particular. Another might be to radically reduce the cost of the tests. That’s what a group at Harvard University, headed by professor George Whitesides, has done in making accurate diagnostic tests on patterned paper that cost pennies per pop. This is thousands of times cheaper than existing test matrices. What’s more, these paper-based tests can easily be administered in the field by lay people with no medical training.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
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So why aren’t we seeing more of this type of disruptive innovation? Bridges and highways are crumbling. So where are the start-ups that could help build bridges or bring to market road materials that are cheaper or more durable?
The general message is clear. Outside of computers, software and a select group of sexy technologies, innovation is almost entirely absent. What’s more, in many of these sectors huge leaps of innovation are not that hard to achieve. Witness the impressive output of Elastec/American Marine, which took less than six months to build a technology six times more efficient and far cheaper to operate than existing technologies. All it took was the impetus of a competition, a relatively modest prize and the prospect of a springboard to put their innovation into the global marketplace. Considering the cost-benefit ratio, it’s amazing we don’t have thousands and thousands of innovation prizes addressing areas of stagnancy throughout our infrastructure — contests that would unleash the intellectual power and drive of entrepreneurs.
So yes, there is low-hanging fruit to be harvested in many areas that could make the United States a better place and up our economic competitiveness. Let’s stop focusing on the shiny objects and look at the boring nooks and crannies for a better roadmap to a better country and a better world.
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