September 29, 2011

Open innovation, entrepreneurs and resources

Cross posted from the Engineering Entrepreneurship blog.

We had our first entrepreneur of the academic year speak today at KGI in Claremont. Eric McAfee is a chronic serial tech entrepreneur, having started two biofuels company, a solar company and a software company (among others).

I’ve met a lot of tech entrepreneurs and heard a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs speak. Even so, I felt he made an important point about leverage and open innovation for startup companies.

For McAfee, the distinction between an entrepreneur and a manager is that an entrepreneur is someone “who allocates resources that they do not currently control,” while the manager allocates resources they control.

To me, this is the flip side of the oft-quoted Teece 1986 formulation. Teece focused on what entrepreneurs should do if they can’t control resources. McAfee’s point is that entrepreneurs often shouldn’t even try — that it’s usually better to buy or license the missing piece of the puzzle.

He explained two examples from his current biofuels company, Cupertino-based Aemetis. First, to get key bioprocessing technology he bought another company — U. Maryland spinoff Zymetis — rather than develop the technology in-house.

His reasons were completely in consonance with the open innovation paradigm. From a technology standpoint, “most companies are stuck with the not-invented syndrome,” McAfee said. “We’ve got to be the best technology company which sometimes means we have to buy other companies or license technology.”

The other approach is that they’re taking that technology and using it to improve the cost-effectiveness of existing ethanol plants — which are often stuck in a commodity business. So instead of buying and owning those plants, Aemetis partners with the existing owners and shares in the proceeds.

So if in Teece’s world of 25 years ago, the goal was to control as many resources as possible and make do when you cannot, in McAfee’s world, the goal is to control the resources that are important and partner for the rest. I think there are clearly cases when the latter approach is superior — particularly in a fast-moving industry where capital is scarce and the window of opportunity may close.

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