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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Innovation

There is a tug in the book between the mythical image of Kamen’s lone genius and the well-led, hardworking team of developers. Kamen, like many great visionaries, seeks to maintain control of the Segway and its commercialization even when the task exceeds the limits of his experience. He battles wills with the likes of Steve Jobs and the legendary venture capitalist John Doerr, and wins Pyrrhic victories that ultimately seem to handicap his success. Kamen’s struggle speaks to the passion that fuels creativity and the tenacity that is required to challenge the status quo. Greatness does not come easy, and it is not for the meek.

Kemper spends a good deal of time whittling Kamen down to size, but he nevertheless shows appreciation for Kamen’s achievements. In addition to his many inventions, Kamen created FIRST, a philanthropic mission to elevate scientists and engineers as role models for young people through staged robotic competitions between teams of students and their corporate sponsors. FIRST has been a tremendous success, attracting more than 600 teams and 20,000 kids in 17 regional championships in 2002. Genius, promoter, or otherwise, Kamen is using his celebrity and vast energies to foster visionaries and innovators among future generations.

Although it was a fun read, I did not find Code Name Ginger very insightful for a business reader because Kemper spills his first-hand observations onto the page without much attention to the nuances of the various parties and interests. As a result of his slant, we see only two-dimensional characterizations of almost everyone except Kamen and key members of the development team. The businesspeople and the business issues are given short shrift.

In contrast, Jeffrey Zygmont, in Microchip: An Idea, Its Genesis, and the Revolution It Created (Perseus Publishing, 2003), calls upon a rich and textured history in revealing the lessons from the innovation of the chip.

I was more than pleasantly surprised by Zygmont’s book. I thought I knew most of the microchip’s lineage, but Zygmont weaves a fascinating set of stories together to illuminate one of the last century’s most amazing feats of innovation. Of course it discusses Bill Shockley’s seminal work at Bell Labs coinventing the transistor in the 1950s and Jack Kilby’s creation of the integrated circuit at Texas Instruments, grouping transistors with other components to create smaller circuits. The pace of innovation quickens when Shockley packs up for California to found Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Here is Shockley’s greatest piece of brilliance: He hires Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and a group of other ingenious engineers and scientists. There is a mass diffusion of knowledge when the “traitorous eight” leave Shockley to form Fairchild Camera, and I couldn’t help but reflect on Chesbrough’s comments about the mobility of talent eroding the conditions that once supported closed innovation. These stars and their protégés move on to startups like Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, National Semiconductor, and Mostek, and eventually give rise to a new capital, Silicon Valley.

Zygmont sees the competitive market as the master of innovation. In his model, we are empowered, not the innovators who slave endlessly to win our acceptance. In Chakravorti’s terms, we are key stakeholders in the new market equilibrium that spells success for any innovation.

The microchip saga is an embarrassment of riches for its wealth of material: There are geniuses like James Siepmann, a tenacious physician who fights off depression by developing the Light Clock, and Jean Hoerni, who broke through from the “vertically” layered transistors to the “horizontally” connected wafers that predominate today. There are formidable engineers like Ted Hoff, the man who designed the microprocessor because he was appalled at the convoluted layouts of one of his clients, and misanthropes like Harold Koplow of Wang, who formulated the model for word processing as he was biding his time waiting to be fired. One never senses Zygmont judging, but rather illuminating the whole primordial soup. Itinerant talent and garrulous customers and suppliers broker the technologies that drive development to the relentless clock of Moore’s Law: Every 18 months the capacity of chips doubles while their prices drop by half.

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