13 October 2014

Research and Startups

In which I argue that research is an extreme form of startup.

Folklore says that nine in ten startups fail. The number 0.9 comes out of the hat of a cat. But, there seems to be agreement that very few startups are highly successful. Some plod along like zombies for a long time. Only few become Twitters or acquired by Twitter (or some other social network).

The situation is seen as satisfactory. Startups carry out activities that have high risk and high reward. Any one particular startup is more likely to fail than succeed. But, the sheer number of startups ensures that we have a steady stream of innovation. This stream is undoubtedly useful for society.

The situation — high risk and high reward — is even more extreme for research.

Every now and then I encounter the opinion that startups rock and research sucks; for example, a few months ago, when I was reading Antifragile. The book extols the virtues of entrepreneurship. It even goes as far as asking for more safety nets so that entrepreneurs take more risks. It's OK to fail, because progress is made by trial and error. At the same time, researchers are seen as a useless bunch. They spend their time on theories, instead on what they should be doing: try and err. Sure, every once in a while they build an atomic bomb, but that's an exception!

As if the startup that becomes Facebook is the rule.

(I still recommend reading the book. It is entertaining and thought provoking, even if rude.)

I like to think of big companies, startups, and research in terms of a travel metaphor. You live in a small village. On one side you see a deep forest. Across the road there is a huge mountain. What would you rather do?

  1. You could take the bus to visit the city. The bus trip may involve some unexpected delays, but it's rather predictable nevertheless. That bus is the service that big companies offer. There may be big differences between two companies — how comfortable the chair is, how entertaining the driver is, how often the bus is on time. But, no matter which bus you pick, it's a safe bet that you will get to the city.
  2. You could go on a hiking expedition to the summit of the mountain. You might find this a lot more exciting than a bus trip. But you also need to make sure you have enough stamina and resolve. There may be a few footpaths along the way, but they are far in-between, badly marked, and you'll certainly not get to the summit by just following them. This expedition is what startups do. Their aim is clear — the summit is in sight. It's also fairly sure that someone will get there eventually. But it's not clear at all that you are sufficiently well trained to get there before night falls. Even if you are, you might get unlucky and take a turn of a road that makes the trip more difficult than necessary.
  3. Finally, you could go into the deep forest. Here, there are no footpaths, and you have no idea what you'll see, or whether you'll be able to get back home. For some, this might be even more exciting than a hiking expedition. This trip through the deep forest is what research does. It discovers hidden gems that you couldn't even imagine if you wouldn't bump into them, mostly by accident. That is not to say that finding gems in a forest is done only by pure luck. You need survival skills. You need to have a sense of direction. You need to fend of animals. You need to be able to climb trees. You need to chart a map as you go, and use it to avoid going in circles. And you have better chances if you join a group, but it can be difficult for people to agree on what is the best course of action.

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