Why It’s Noble to Be An Innovator

An earlier version of this column appeared in Xconomy in 2010.

We’ve all been there: you’re at your college or high-school reunion, talking with old acquaintances, and the question comes up: “so, what do you do now?”

We all have friends who are doctors, teachers, firemen, journalists… people who make the world better somehow. But what if you’re in the innovation field? What if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re working on a start-up? Does our work stack up as meaningful?

Absolutely. And you should feel confident explaining why. Here are some examples from CIC’s community of innovative companies changing the world for the better – all companies innovative entrepreneurs started and carried to success.


While a doctor can treat thousands of patients over a career, and we are grateful for her work, your impact can be much, much bigger. The researcher who invents a new medicine or medical device can cure millions… even billions.

Cambridge firm Gloucester Pharmaceuticals, purchased by Celgene, has done this for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. InVivo Therapeutics is working hard on overcoming paralysis.

The same basic thing is happening in nearly every disease category: 40% increase in the survival rate of people with Leukemia, a 66% reduction in ER visits from patients with Crohn’s disease, and a one-third reduction in treatment costs for Alzheimer’s are just a few of the results of medical innovations developed in the past 40 years.


Geeks like Cambridge-based researcher Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Rich Miner, creator of the open-source mobile operating system Google Android, have essentially created the world’s largest, cheapest, and most useful library, at little or no cost to the public. These days it is available even in places like rural Cambodian schools and the mountains of Nepal.

If knowledge and education are the foundations of democracy, these innovations are bringing democracy to the world. We saw this first-hand in the Arab Spring, where smartphones, video sharing, and engagement with social media-enabled regime changes in a way never before possible.


Carbon fuels are both highly polluting and in short supply, and if we don’t end our dependence on them, as a civilization we are done. Innovations – in the form of low-cost wind, clean coal, and solar energy – give us a shot at kicking our carbon fuel habit.

Take GreatPoint Energy: begun as the MIT spin-out FastCap Systems working on ultracapacitors, GreatPoint has developed bluegas,  a process that produces natural gas from other fuel sources efficiently and with much less pollution than traditional methods.

OK, you say. Some innovation really does matter. But how about those of us who are in less earth-shattering innovative endeavors? Does innovation still matter if we create new companies that, for instance, provide online marketing services, rent exotic cars, or invent new soups?

It turns out it does matter. Big time.

Learning from History

For the past 30 years or so, the U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting data about where new jobs come from.

Tim Kane and researchers at the Census Bureau and the Kauffman Foundation analyzed this data closely. Experts used to believe that new jobs come from “small business” writ large. But the study found that this previous conclusion missed the point: growth is not from “small firms,” but rather from “new firms.”

Over the past quarter-century, all net new jobs in the United States came from firms that were less than five years old. The rest, as a whole, lost jobs.

Firms less than 5 years old collectively created 3 million new jobs a year (net of job losses). Meanwhile, companies 5 years old and up collectively lost 1 million jobs per year.

This is an agenda-changing conclusion for the economic development field because it suggests that instead of pursuing quite so many policies supporting “small business,” governments should really be pushing policies, such as entrepreneurship education, that support the creation of new business and the development of innovators.

It’s clear that whether it be the direct contribution of our innovations to industry and society or the jobs the companies we build then we create, our work is critically important to the health and well-being of our nation and the world.

So, St. Louis innovators, congratulations on picking such a meaningful career, and have fun at that next reunion!