In innovation theater, ideas don’t come to fruition. ( /

David Tohn remembers when he first heard the phrase “innovation theater.” It was at the most recent South By Southwest event in Austin, Texas, during a presentation about new technology and bringing innovation to the Department of Defense. Part of it was about the Small Business Innovation Research program.

“SBIR is the government’s way to ask to have complicated problems solved and is a primary way to invite innovation,” said Tohn, CEO of Columbia-based BTS Software Solutions, “but it doesn’t work well. It’s called the ‘Valley of Death’ and is a core problem” when working with the DoD.

In other words, it’s asking for innovative solutions, but it’s rare that the ideas discussed see the light of day. Hence the drama of innovation theater.

A big part of this conversation in tech circles is about the need for solutions. “It also concerns how to use an SBIR to successfully transition to a Program of Record, such as the F-35 or the F-22 for aircraft carriers, when the government is making an expensive buy with the hope of solving a problem for the next three decades.”

The general issue is that various paths for solving problems never come to fruition. “While the technologies discussed may be very innovative for a host of reasons,” Tohn said, “they may not progress for reasons ranging from lack of budgets to programs that have been locked down due to engineering issues.”

For instance, designs can be locked. “If someone is already building a new airplane, they may be beyond the point of wanting a new engine,” said Tohn, “so these things die, not because they’re bad ideas, but because the support chain isn’t there.”

Companies should initially “think through what they wish to achieve and how they wish to resource their innovation programs,” said Paul Norwood, director of the Lazard Geopolitical Advisory, in Austin, Texas. “Executives can focus their innovation efforts on a core problem, adjacent issues or truly ‘greenfield’ efforts with high potential to disrupt their current business model.”

In all cases, they “should align innovation activities to creatively address those problems and tie the activity to the next steps within their corporate processes “with someone assigned to champion the effort,” Norwood said. “Another goal of innovation activities might be to encourage employee participation by sharing problems they see and any initial concepts to solve those problems, essentially building a program which enables an innovative culture.”

He said “very few” companies have the resources “to be relevant across a multitude of innovation spaces, so, determining the intent of the strategy and implementation programs early is key.

“Get started and don’t be afraid to pivot, remembering that many efforts will fail,” said Lazard. “The trick is to identify that failure early and remain focused on solutions which have potential outcomes that impact the business in a significant way. Innovation and its adoption must be focused by a purpose.”

So, how can the business community work with government entities to facilitate innovative ideas reaching the market?

“[It] will take intention from our federal partners and a deliberate regional strategy to synchronize the effort,” said Larry Twele, who recently retired as CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. “There’s work being done both at the federal and private sector levels because it’s recognized that small businesses can be agile and develop solutions quickly.”   

And that’s being done, though Twele added a telling caveat about the local efforts.

“We’re working on this issue currently. There are several other places in the country, with fewer assets, that are beating us,” he said. “We’re making progress on our strategy and you can expect to see some news during the next several months.”

Tohn added another optimistic thought. “In the DOD’s defense,” he said, “They’re struggling mightily to solve the problem.

“When I go to conferences, I hear anecdotal successes, but it’s rare that I hear of any longitudinal solutions,” Tohn said. “However, there are lessons that have been learned and the DoD is updating processes and procedures. Hopefully, they’ll take root.”