Lessons from a Master Inventor

The wisdom of 88-year-old maverick Stan Ovshinsky includes the benefits of hands-on education and the limits of conventional domestic finance 

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Lots of food for thought about innovation in this Strategy+Business profile of the 88-year-old maverick inventor Stan Ovshinsky, possibly the last of the Depression-seasoned self-taught genius inventors.

1) Advantages of hands-on education:

In 1983, when he first began to explore the field, photovoltaic cells were still the size of a thumbnail, and made of costly crystalline silicon in small volumes. To considerable skepticism, even within his own company, Ovshinsky insisted that photovoltaic materials should be made of amorphous silicon deposited on flexible plastics by the mile, like newsprint rolling off a press. The deposition process requires high vacuum and absolute isolation from outside contaminants that the manufacturing equipment of the day could not achieve. But Ovshinsky was first and foremost a machinist, so he designed and produced his own tooling.

2) Unintended consequences of corporate reform:

In the midst of his technological advances, Ovshinsky ran headlong into an obstacle not described by the laws of physics: corporate governance regulation in the post-Enron age. He had always packed ECD's board with Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned thinkers in diverse fields whose attendance was clearly more related to mutual intellectual stimulation than legal and regulatory compliance. After the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, he had to take on additional outside directors with government-mandated skill sets, who then pressured him to emphasize quarterly earnings at the expense of experimentation. He was also forced to impose a reporting hierarchy on the company, which had never known titles or more than two levels of separation between the lowest-paid employee and the CEO. The culture of the company, which had always been collegial, became more conventionally corporate. Longtime colleagues began to leave, and Ovshinsky found himself dreading days filled with meetings and administrative duties. When Iris died suddenly in 2006 at 79, after an apparent heart attack, he abruptly retired.

3) Silicon Valley as competitor for top talent:

Although ECD's growth over the decades gave many employees a comfortable nest egg, it was slow and steady and never generated the kind of intense, instant wealth that rewarded employees at firms like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. Headhunters often recruited the company's multitalented engineers with promises of rapid riches, and some accepted lucrative offers only to find they missed the ECD culture.

4) Limits of conventional domestic finance:

The capital sums Ovshinsky is seeking are not big relative to the billions that venture capitalists are throwing at green energy startups, but he says he is not looking to them as investors. "Why don't I go to the venture capitalists? They don't care about the achievement; they care about getting out of it at the right time," he says. "I think countries are better. All they want is for you to build the machines. I prefer to get money from groups that want to answer the problem, and that understand that it has to be revolutionary."

More evidence, for me, that what's holding back basic breakthroughs is not the recalcitrance of the universe but institutions and attitudes that can be changed.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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