Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mothers of Invention: EmTech08 Conference

It's taken me a day to think about the conversation we enjoyed yesterday as a panel of women who run research labs spoke at EmTech08.

Here was the line-up of all the female innovators who spoke about their labs:
Intrapreneurship: Fostering Innovation with a Large Organization.

Moderator: Gwen Acton, Founder and CEO, Vivo Group; President, Women Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (WEST)

Panelists: Jennifer Chayes, Managing Director, Microsoft Research New England; Susan Foley, Executive Director, Research Centers at Babson Executive Education; Founder, Corporate Entrepreneurs Holly Heaslet Soutter, Principal Scientist, Lead Discovery Technologies, Pfizer Global Research and Development

Let me admit my bias up front. I had a lot of cognitive dissonance, aka brain noise, about the notion that anything innovative can really come out of a corporate organization. I'm a doubter, yes, I know. Can a skunkworks ever be stinky enough for real down and dirty crazy innovators? And it seems like very few of the big companies can let the eggs hatch and let the chicks grow into real roosters ... only a start-up company can be cocky enough if you ask me. Still, these were pretty persuasive women, I have to give them credit.

I've known good friends who either ran or worked for a slew of the best -- Bell Labs, Bill Labs, BT Labs, FranceTelecom Orange Labs, Interval Research, Xerox Parc, to name a few. Some how or another some of the leading edge innovations started in those hallowed halls and highly esteemed places, either evaporated or slipped off the edge. There are many reasons why these things can happen, too many to go into here, but internal R&D labs in big corporations are a tricky thing to make work. Now, back to yesterday's group.

Of course the big news here is that Jennifer Chayes at Microsoft just hired a real off-the-chart brilliant innovator, danah boyd, so she's put her money where her mouth is -- to hire someone really creative. Microsoft can surprise you. They brought a whole bunch of us wooly wild blogging characters to Redmond, a while back to be "Search Champs" and discuss what we thought they might do to improve search. I had a great time, but I found the absolute flood of blue shirts and khaki pants kindof shocking. I kept wondering, if they dress all alike ... do they think all alike? Still, in the end, I did feel they made every effort to listen to us, and that was appreciated, and believe me this was early on when no one listened to bloggers.

Bottom line: these lab leaders know how to keep the suits away from their surfing dudes and dudettes and let them be free in mind and intention. They know how to build teams, like making a good stew, where each ingredient helps enhance the other. They know that the best researchers will want to jump ship at some point and they know how to handle those transistions. It was a good panel, very interactive, very informative.