At a recent Department of Energy meeting lunch – the usual eight strangers around hotel rubber chicken – the conversation was brisk about new types of environmental and energy technology. After a great discussion of a carbon capture demonstration of going on in North Carolina, I turned to the dapper older gentleman next to me and introduced myself. He returned the pleasantry, telling me he was from a major southern university, after having spent several decades at a flagship industrial firm. He was at the meeting to try to get a sense of whether the Department of Energy might be interested in his new technology, which converts carbon dioxide (and apparently other oxides) into useful compounds.
At this point he had my interest. He had a long career, which should provide a lot of useful experience, and an application (converting waste carbon dioxide into useful products) that intrigued me. Anything we can do to use carbon dioxide, is that much less in the atmosphere. For instance, I am quite interested in ways to form cements that have a high amount of carbon dioxide in them. I anticipated a lively and informative discussion, perhaps even a new friend.
My question,”So, how do you do that?” got the answer, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you. We are here to talk to the DOE folks and we haven’t received all the patents yet.”
I hear this all too often. A magic technology that is going to save the world, and make the inventors rich. But I was surprised to hear it from an experienced and worldly-looking academic. I pressed on. “What products do you make?” was also rebuffed. He wouldn’t even tell me what the process does, let alone what it is.
I turned away and continued the first, fascinating conversation about demonstrations. The thirty-something engineer was more than delighted to tell me why his demonstration mattered, and just exactly what he was discovering. But the failed conversation continued to eat at me as I sat on the plane heading home.
Why do people think secrecy has any place in environmental and energy technology?
In this case, my academic lunch partner missed several valuable opportunities. He missed the chance to try out his pitch. The more you try your pitch on new audiences, the better it gets. Seven other lunch partners with experience in his field would have been a great practice audience.
Second, he failed to recognize that the pitch you make directly to a funding agency, as he was intending to do by buttonholing a DOE person, is never as powerful as the pitch someone else makes on your behalf. When I hear about interesting new approaches, I am delighted to mention them to the program managers – who are my friends, and value my input. Of course this gentleman had no idea that I could play that kind of direct role, but that misses the point. In our connected scientific world, anyone can have that kind of influence for you. The likelihood that an obviously senior (well, gray-haired anyway) person like me can play that role at a focused technical meeting is very high.
But secrecy has other huge negatives in my energy technology field. We are trying to build new systems with reduced environmental footprint, and presumably an industrial concern will to produce the systems, and will try to make money doing so. But the idea that secrecy for your brilliant idea is the best path forward is just wrong. It is strongly associated with the snake oils and overhyped tech failures of the last decade. When finally exposed to the light of full evaluation after extensive hype and major investment, flaws in supposedly perfect technology can be fatal. Fixing those flaws early, and having an open conversation with your peers about them, can get you valuable help and more valuable supporters. And in today’s connected world of billions of educated people, the odds that no one else has had your idea are exactly zero. If it is a good idea, someone else has it too. Now it is a race to see who can make it real.
Perhaps more important to championing science, though, is the role that inventions play in a marketplace as big as energy. We all see giant fortunes being made in new technology, but can you show me an example of someone who got rich from a brilliant patent? If you can, I’ll show you a hundred people who got rich from a well-structured company with the right people and knowledgeable investors. Elon Musk did the right thing when he recently declared that Tesla’s patents could be freely used by other electric car manufacturers. People don’t buy Teslas because of patented technology, they buy them because the integrated package, from powertrain to paint, is an awesome product.
Anonymity is hard to monetize. If no one knows about your idea, no one can support it. If you are working alone, you don’t have the connections and breadth to outdo your competitors, no matter how smart you are. Secrecy rarely is as valuable as collaborators and supporters. Tell your story to everyone that will listen, and pay attention to their feedback. Become a better champion, and bring your game-changing idea to fruition.