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Big Omaha – Aneesh Chopra: ‘There’s never been a better time to be an innovator’

Robert Scoble (left) introduced Aneesh Chopra and joined him on stage for Chopra’s talk on the state of technological innovation in the U.S. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr.

In introducing United States CTO Aneesh Chopra on May 12 at Big Omaha, tech enthusiast and blogger Robert Scoble painted the picture of what he believes are a few clouds hovering over the nation’s technological landscape. But it wasn’t long before Chopra stepped to the stage and pledged to chase those clouds away.

“I’m going to make him happy again,” Chopra said. “My job today is to convince all of you that there’s never been a better time to be an innovator.”

Chopra tackled that task by outlining a number of initiatives that he, as the man picked by President Barack Obama to serve as the nation’s first CTO, is helping spearhead. The highlights from Chopra’s talk:

Lagging growth

Chopra established the need for innovation by pointing to four important sectors of the economy — government, health care, education and utilities — that have failed to deliver the same gains in recent years as the country’s most productive sectors.

“These have been flat to declining in their productivity,” he said. “And part of the reason for that is that we haven’t harnessed digital infrastructure in the same way that have transformed real estate, manufacturing” and other sectors.

R&D transparency

“One of the building blocks in innovation is in research and development,” Chopra said, “and we’re trying to expose as much of our research investment so that entrepreneurs can access that data or product or service.”

To do that, the government has launched a research and development dashboard that enables people to track federal R&D awards to research institutions, a move Chopra said brings about “unprecedented transparency in research and development investments.”

Startup America

Chopra described what he calls “lowercase ‘G’,” or the convening power of government. The President used that power, Chopra said, in the Startup America movement.

“The president called on visionaries like Steve Case and the Kauffman Foundation, Carl Schramm in particular, to serve as founding board members for a private-led initiative called the Startup America Partnership,” Chopra said. “And it’s catalyzing all kinds of ideas from the private sector for the private sector, all in the spirit of the president’s call to arms.”

Challenge 1: Health care

Chopra discussed “three specific areas where we need that ‘all hands on deck’ approach, three challenges to you as entrepreneurs.”

First among those challenges, Chopra said, is “to move from (a health care system) that focuses on the volume of care, which is what we have today, to one that shifts toward a value for care.”

The shift in philosophy will encourage people to collectively “find ways to keep you out of the hospital, to keep you healthier. That they could be financially rewarded by doing that … we see a tremendous amount of opportunity for entrepreneurs to get into the game.”

Chopra cited data mining and analytics, care-integration tools and decision support as just a few of the areas in which entrepreneurial innovations could help improve the health care system. He followed that by painting a picture of a nation in which automated text notifications from doctors’ offices inform patients about preventative care.

“Who will build those services that will help that delivery system focus on wellness and value?” Chopra asked. “I predict that one of you in this room will be a billionaire and I will say thank you to you for … moving our healthcare system to better value for the dollar spent, in the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people.” (Above: Chopra. Photo from Malone & Company on Flickr.)

Challenge 2: Education

Chopra suggested reform in education that mirrored the efficiency-driven changes he proposed to health care. “We need to move our education system from one focused on seat time, that is how often a child sits in the classroom for a given period of days, to one that’s focused on mastery,” Chopra said.

He said the movement from a print-based education system to a digital school system will be key to catalyzing that change. To that end, the administration is investing more in education R&D, which by comparison to R&D in other sectors of the economy has been grossly underfunded in recent years.

The goal is to develop technology that analyzes students’ pace of learning and determines the appropriate speed for them to move along. “We’re looking to find new and creative ways,” he said, “to provide research and development in our education system.”

Challenge 3: Energy

Chopra offered an anecdote as an example of potential energy innovation, tailoring it to the crowd at KANEKO, which was full of folks toting laptops, tablets and other devices. Current computer power chords are unwieldy and only about 75 percent efficient, Chopra said. But because of government funding of a team at Virginia Tech, that will improve.

The team, Chopra said “is going to move this to a simple model that eliminates the need for that little box in the middle of your power chord and will deliver 90 percent energy efficiency.” And that innovation is just the tip of an extremely lucrative iceberg. Said Chopra: “The power electronics market is a $4 billion market.”

Models for the future

Chopra touched on three things the government is doing to help innovators meet the challenges he outlined:

  • The “Triple Bottom Line Model” of unleashing government data that will help entrepreneurs: “Have at it,” Chopra said of that data. “It’s yours. Please take advantage of it.”
  • The harvesting of “Cognitive Surplus”: Chopra encouraged people to use their skills for the greater good — and personal financial gain — outside of the workplace. “The president launched challenge.gov to allow all of our federal agencies to present some of the biggest challenges that they face,” Chopra said, “so that you or a team of your friends can come together and say, ‘You know what? I want to go after that challenge.’ “
  • The prioritization of innovation-focused policy: President Obama showed his dedication to innovation, Chopra said, in creating the CTO position. And that entrepreneurial spirit within the administration has been gaining steam since. “Our doors are wide open,” Chopra said. “We are recruiting like mad. We are here to ask of you – for those of you that want to come in and serve your country — we are asking to create in matters big and small.”

Immigration and innovation

Chopra closed with an overview of the President’s efforts to change immigration policy so that high-skill immigrants will be encouraged to come to the U.S. and innovate.

“This is the time to fix the broken immigration system,” Chopra said, “because you can’t talk about entrepreneurship and innovation without acknowledging the very real point that from 1995-2005, well over 25 percent of all of the startups in the United States were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs.”

Progress is being made, Chopra said. Just recently, he pointed out, new policies were enacted to encourage immigrant graduate students to stay in the U.S. longer. He then closed with a personal story of an immigrant entrepreneur, his father, who moved to the U.S. from India “to come live the American dream.”

“This is a personal matter for me and for many others in this country,” Chopra said. “We’ve got to get this issue right.”