We don’t have lineage among our bona fides?

Lineage is a product of continuity, and continuity is a product of evolution. Lineage has history, pedigree, familiarity, assurance. It reinforces our mental model of how good things happen and work. Because we like what we know and we know what we like, usually.

Innovation is a product of disruption, and disruption is a product of revolution. Innovation lacks history, pedigree, familiarity and assurance. It’s risky and uncomfortable. It may satisfy needs, but it takes a lot of getting used to and learning to trust. We usually don’t like what we don’t already know.

I hold these truths to be self-evident, but like most truths of that sort, they’re fraught with tension. That’s because people typically want to have their cake and eat it. They want lineage and innovation at the same time though the two may be diametrically opposed.

If you have attained lineage or you value and reward it, you probably don’t do innovation. You are less interested in the new than the known. Clayton Christensen coined the term “sustaining innovation” in order to connect the opposites — to argue that some innovators make incremental rather than transformational improvements, but that’s a mare’s nest. Making something better is a process of extending its lineage; it’s not an organizing principle of innovation.

The people who want to have their cake and eat it, those are individuals like ourselves, but also organizations such as employers and federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (“Where Discoveries Begin”) and the National Institutes of Health (“Turning Discovery Into Health”). Those agencies are much on my mind at present, because I’m sending SBIR (“America’s Seed Fund”) proposals to each.

The charter of SBIR is to promote innovation in part by selecting for lineage. That’s why most SBIR funds are given to nicely situated academic teams. Wait, let me clarify. SBIR funds are for corporate entrepreneurial teams, but in reality most of them are led and staffed by academic stakeholders who want to commercialize their previously funded academic research. Such stakeholders provide a project with lineage whereas scrappy inventors have only their wit and passion to recommend them, usually.

Unless memory fails me, as a former academician I’m pretty sure that college professors are generally risk averse. They are conservative, self-centered, they don’t like to put skin in the game, in fact they don’t like playing games with their career but prefer the certainties of job security, organizational hierarchy and the comforting sameness of job responsibilities that change only a little from season to season. The ubiquitous tenure system ensures that innovators are largely excluded from academia because they are disruptive.

That is why SBIR requirements for both lineage and innovation are an unacknowledged oxymoron. Unacknowledged because both are explicitly and unapologetically written into NSF solicitations and NIH funding opportunity announcements.

The best way to qualify for SBIR with these agencies is to derisk a project by summoning lineage as evidence that it’s a sure bet. And yet the best way to qualify for SBIR is to explain that the project is so risky that private investors won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole; therefore taxpayer money should finance it.

Humaginarium is one of those scrappy inventors born of a garage rather than an ivory tower. We have an innovation that is damned risky, and we don’t have lineage among our bona fides. What would you do in our place?

Well, we can’t become less innovative. Innovation is what makes our project meaningful and fun. And we can’t borrow lineage, can we?

Actually we can. Because the technologies we are bringing together have been developing for decades, in many cases with government funding, only not for our purposes. System dynamics, computer modeling of health, bioinformatics, biochemical engineering, predictive simulation, adaptive experiential learning, instructional technology. These are the cross threads of our invention, forming a new fabric of impact and consequence.

Precisely what consequence I can’t reveal here, not because it’s a secret but because I’m out of space. For now, suffice it to say that pretty soon you’re going to love what you don’t already know. That goes double for people with chronic illness.

A griffin of classical antiquity combining the eagle (innovation) and lion (lineage) into a mythic animal that embodies an impossible ideal. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)