Is innovation being sold short?

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Are restrictions placed on innovation or innovators?

Last week I attended The BCS/IET Turing Lecture 2013 at Cardiff University, entitled “What they didn’t teach me: building a technology company and taking it to market” and delivered by Suranga Chandratillake. It was part of the IET Prestige Lecture Series 2013 which took place in a number of venues around the UK.

As a Cambridge undergraduate Chandratillake edited the university newspaper, coxed the college rowing team and read Computer Science before being awarded a double first. Now 35, he is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of blinkx plc, a video search engine he started in 2004, took public in 2007 and led as CEO until 2012.

Before blinkx, Chandratillake was Autonomy plc’s US Chief Technology Officer. He told us in his lecture that blinkx was a spin-out company of his previous employer, Autonomy. I’m not sure if I missed something important when this was being explained but the detail of this wasn’t clear. Why was it spun-out?

It seemed a reasonably important point because you could argue that a spin-out company isn’t really a start-up. That is, a business built from the ground up which is devolved from the expertise and resources of a wider organisation. Maybe the point was briefly washed over and blurred, or maybe my concentration wandered at the crucial point. Maybe it’s a trivial quibble anyway.

At the heart of the lecture was the “boffin fallacy”. This is the idea that technologists do not or cannot understand wider business: sales, marketing, human resources, finance; and innovation is being sold short as a result.

Here was another point to wrestle with. Chandratillake said that he broadly approved of the current UK government’s plans and commitment to technology and innovation, which seemed opposed the idea of it being sold short. And surely the speaker’s own story and presentation was proof that innovation isn’t being sold short.

Added to which is the relentlessly exposed technology climate, particularly in weeks like this when the Mobile World Congress is in full swing. Never before has technology and innovation had such a spotlight; never has it been more pervasive, powerful, popular, ever-present. If raw talent is obviously there, like a younger Chandratillake’s was, and a genuinely novel product is also there, Venture Capitalists are likely to come knocking with funding and support.

Is this innovation sold short?

It also led me to ponder what innovation actually means these days, given that the word is now so often used in a casual, flippant manner. Seemingly interchangeable with ‘creative’ and ‘imaginative’, is it even possible to define?

Chandratillake mentioned one successful call centre app he was involved in before blinkx. This chimed with my personal experience working with telecoms group MX Telecom, providers of a CRM system and SMS message-routing technology for directory enquiry service 118118. How far is providing bespoke, intelligent software genuinely innovative, and how far is it a standard modern way of reacting to a business need?

Boundaries are being pushed today with new devices packed in novel form-factors and imaginative digital platforms. Media consumption behaviours are developing with wearable technology like Google Glass. Perhaps it’s time ‘innovation’ was broken down a little.

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The nub of the lecture though, perhaps gently steered by a Turing Lecture agenda, was about innovation being sold short. This key point of a stylish presentation I felt was miscued. Surely this selling short reflected a frustration at potential technologists themselves, rather than at innovation? Frustration that they’re often subjected to, and accepting of, self-fulfilling prophecies espoused by business leaders. Self-fulfilling prophecies which claim computer scientists don’t possess business skills and should sit in dark rooms, drink coffee and code themselves into a frenzy late at night.

As detailed in the lecture, the majority of computer science degrees at UK universities offer a chance to learn the necessary key business skills, albeit in a transferrable manner. Such was the ability, capacity and application of Chandratillake’s brain, he was able to extrapolate on key models, ideas and formulae, and practically apply them to his business.

This dizzying presentation lost me at a number of points. At times it felt like Chandratillake’s mouth was fighting hard to keep up with his freewheeling brain. Yet it was impossible not to be impressed.

One of only two minor quibbles was the supposedly start-up nature of blinkx plc. The backing of Autonomy plc, which still holds a 10 per cent share, might have helped in its growth. The second was this core idea of innovation being sold short. The Turing Lecture is probably designed to rouse and empower the new generation with belief, motivation and ambition. This presentation did that extremely well.

But equally, I’m sure there are many brilliant programmers and technologists with minds not unlike Chandratillake’s, who are happy to be a behind-the-scenes part of great products. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Read the Composed blog post about the 2014 Turing Lecture.
Read the Composed blog post about the 2015 Turing Lecture.

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