Leveraging Resource for Innovation

In order to succeed, small businesses and entrepreneurs need to innovate in ways that set them above the rest of the market. Producing a product that merely tweaks existing designs will not be enough. To gain market share, new business ventures need to be providing goods or services that are something completely new. Both the Council on Competitiveness and the US DOE/Office of Science call simulation and computational science the “third leg” of innovation, with recommendations for the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) to make simulation more productive and cost effective. The Council on Competitiveness notes that there are three factors that tend to keep businesses from using HPC aggressively: Lack of talent/expertise, Lack of easy-to-use, scalable, production ready software, and cost/ROI. For start ups and small to mid-sized businesses ( SMBs), these hurdles can be especially high. Large HPC clusters are very expensive, programmers with HPC experience do not hire cheap and software licensing costs can add to the cost burden. While there are several programs that attempt to make these resources more available to businesses, we still have significant room for improvement. The US DOE’s INCITE program, for example will benefit 9 different corporations in 2009 with grants of processing time on some of the nations largest supercomputers, but less than 10% of the grants given in 2009 will benefit non-academics. Although businesses as diverse as Intel and Dreamworks have been previous grant recipients, for small businesses still on the low end of the HPC learning curve, the INCITE program does not fill the HPC gap.
In many cases, government granting agencies actually make it difficult for academic grant recipients to assist for-profit ventures. For example, the NSF Grant Policy Manual (gpm05_131) states:

544 Principles Relating to the Use of NSF-Supported Research Instrumentation and Facilities

The following principles on use of NSF-supported instrumentation and facilities were adopted by the National Science Board:

The National Science Foundation seeks the maximum productive use of the Nation’s scientific instrumentation and research expertise. Ensuring that the highest quality instrumentation, facilities, and services are available to scientific users, both academic and industrial, is a key requirement, as are harmonious relations and cooperation between industry and universities. Private research and testing laboratories, as well as university, government, and industrial laboratories, have a contribution to make.

The National Science Board recognizes that there may be circumstances where NSF grantees use NSF-supported research instrumentation to provide services in commerce for a fee, to an extent that such practice, (1) detracts from the performance of their obligation under the grant, and/or (2) may have a material and deleterious effect on the success of private companies engaged in the provision of equivalent services. It is contrary to the NSF’s intent for grantees to use NSF-supported research instrumentation or facilities to provide services for a fee in competition with private companies in a manner that is prohibited by OMB Circular A-110.

Grantees should implement the above principles and related grant conditions in a reasonable manner. Grantees are expected to provide fair and adequate consideration of any complaints about use of instrumentation and facilities.

The “gray” nature of what is allowed and what is not, along with the concerns of time and resources needed to provide documentation and explanation if complaints are made has caused most universities and research institutions to avoid selling low cost services to businesses. While regulations like this were put in place to prevent grant recipients from forming enterprises that unfairly compete with unfunded business ventures, in times of economic trouble where outside the box thinking is needed, we need regulations that are not only clearly stated to permit some assistance to businesses, but actually encourage the huge pools of talent and resources currently locked in our universities to grow the HPC and simulation capabilities in the business ecosystem.

It is important to state that I am not trying to argue for the diversion of research funds away from pure science, or the pursuit of “big questions” ( climate shifts, the origin of the universe, cancer research, etc…), but I do believe that all of us could benefit just as much or more by allowing universities that purchase technology with grants to sell the leftover cycles to businesses. It does not matter if the cycles are actual computer cycles to run simulations, or leftover “cycles” of people time to provide consulting or training; fully utilizing the resources our tax dollars pay for to assist in business innovations seems only prudent in today’s competitive market. I believe that this is important enough that I would be fully in agreement of preference for grants to recipients who can show a plan and an infrastructure to provide such services. Are you an entrepreneur or SMB owner? What could you do with access to low cost, high quality HPC resources, consulting services and/or training?

Tales from a Dying Town: leveraging social media

In this nationally advertised “dying town”, there is a grass roots movement to be seen as active and vital. Much of this activity is taking place on Facebook, through a group called “Let’s go Kokomo”. The “let’s go Kokomo” movement is not new, it has been active here on local radio for a couple of years. The movement was originally designed to help people find locally owned and operated businesses and to encourage them to shop there instead of driving out of town or shopping on the internet. The shift to Facebook has happened only in the last couple of months, and I think it is a nice rallying point for the folks here in town to gather and discover things about themselves. There is a lot of information on Facebook right now about Events and groups in Kokomo, but the truth is that it is still the result of a lot of effort by a very small group of people. And while it is fun and informative and makes living in a dying town less painful ( sort of like a morphine drip), I have not yet figured out how it will counteract the death march. If I am on Facebook, why would I search for and be interested in a group about Kokomo, unless I was already here? The Facebook activity reminds me of the Whos on the puffball, happily going about their business, in denial that the pot of oil is coming.

I do not want to discourage the Let’s Go Kokomo founders, because as a resident, I find the information infinitely useful. I even contribute. But we should be honest that we are doing this for ourselves, not to save the town.

I think there are ways to leverage the web and technology to let people out there know what a great town and what talent awaits businesses here in Kokomo. We need to get more involved in online activities that are focused outside of Kokomo and let people know where we are from with pride. Here are a couple of potential starting points:

1) The OpenStreetMap of Kokomo is almost empty. With so many people who have technical knowledge finding themselves with time on their hands, we should have the most densely filled in and informative map out there. Not only would this be helpful to people in and outside of Kokomo, but it shows that we take pride in our city and that we have a vision of the future where OpenSource and OpenData are important. A town full of forward thinking individuals is attractive to businesses, start ups and innovators.

2) Take all that resourcefulness and start innovating yourself. Stop looking to figure out how you can move away and get a job, start looking at all the great ideas trapped in those engineering brains and start building things right here. There are people already starting, and there are resources to help you out. The Inventrek center is looking to expand and launch lots of startups.

3) If you are out of ideas, or are not convinced that yours are worth working on, help out with someone else’s. Head over to sourceforge.net ( or your favorite open source area) and start contributing actively to other opensource projects. After you put in your 4 hours of job searching time each day, do not waste time cleaning the garage, or watching reruns on TV. Sit down and build something. Interact with the other people on your project, make connections and make the world a little bit better.

4) If you can not afford to give your time away for free and really need to work on more income, check out Innocentive.com for crowdsourced engineering and problem solving opportunities for pay.

These are just a few ideas. I would love to see discussion in the comments from the folks outside of Kokomo, what would you like to see and hear that would convice you that we are in fact alive? What will break through the barriers of understanding so that you hear us yelling “We are here, we are here, we are here….” ?