Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Sixtieth Anniversary of Cleveland
Missing an Opportunity for Innovation

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the invention of the transistor, which was cobbled together by some researchers in Bell Laboratories, one of the more fertile engines of innovation of its time. It's often said that the Northeast Ohio region missed the digital era, and all the chances it offered to capitalize on related innovations. But David Morgenthalar, one of the founders of the venture capital industry, goes further. He once observed that Cleveland and the surrounding region actually missed the boat on the transistor era, which of course places our economic dysfunctions at a much earlier starting point. It also explains why Morgenthaler, who did understand the powerful implications of this breakthrough (he earned two mechanical engineering degrees from MIT just a few years before the transistor's invention) and later founded Morgenthaler Ventures, chose to invest in relatively few deals in this area, even though it remains the VC group's nominal headquarters.

8 Comments:

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

I recall David once telling me that the last "big idea" this region latched onto was the steel boom. And that was almost a hundred years ago. Since then, we've largely missed the boat.

 
At 12:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sad but true, Miles. And great seein you last night, however briefly.

 
At 3:04 PM, Blogger Free-lance Writer said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

Missed what boat? When I was growing up on the East Side a transistor was that neat little radio you could take anywhere and play the music for which it was most identified -- rock 'n roll -- a Cleveland invention.

Which reminds me, I enjoyed your NOLive piece on the Midwest Encyclopedia, but I think the eastern boundary is really the Cuyahoga River, the East Side -- especially our haunts (Shaker Square and Coventry) -- being more like the East, with examples of culture and sophistication equal to any found along the seaboard.

 
At 5:56 PM, Blogger Cleveland Carole Cohen 3C said...

John you always find the most interesting items to ponder. Loved the linked article and then of course there is the sadness at the truth that we have missed the boat since 1947. How nice to find out it's one more thing we did not do. I know Joel did a post today on a solar franchise and I got my hopes up. We'll see.

 
At 9:41 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Mike, good to see you back here. And yes, for me, transistor meant the pocket-sized radio I'd stick under my pillow at night to listen to the Tribe game when they were playing on the west coast. But what I think Mr. M. was referring to was the transistor as a technical platform for a whole host of related electronic products and services. It would be the equivalent of digital technology today, which of course describes a tremendously wide array of technical products and services.

And I'm glad you saw that piece about the Midwest encyclopedia, which was a labor of love. I came across that giant doorstop of a book, all 1,600 pages of it, at the bookstore and was amazed by it. I was even more amazed to find out subsequently that it had been out for a year and yet had almost entirely escaped notice of book reviewers or indeed just about any kind of coverage. So I figured I'd write about it. I'll try to get that article up online here for others soon. Interestingly enough, I would completely agree with you about the Cuyahoga River being the important boundary point. As a matter of fact, I made that very point in this earlier essay, also published in N.O. Live (link below)

http://www.jimkukral.com/NOoct156.pdf

And Carole, keep your hopes up. We'll get it together eventually. Actually, I would argue that we already have it pretty well together when it comes to medical technology, devices and other medical-related fields, in large part because of the tremendous infrastructure in place here from Case Med School, UH and the Cleveland Clinic. The spinoffs are beginning to form a critical mass of activity and investment. Jobs, too.

 
At 10:35 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

Oh, I know all about the real transistor, having worked for the Bell System where it was invented (only, one of the Nobel prizewinners who did it also had a kind of embarrassing theory about the genetic inferiority of people of color. Guess you can't get everything right.)

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Mike, I forgot about your stint at Bell, since it was way back before I knew you. But in any case, I should have instantly recognized that you were kidding about the transistor question. As you know, sometimes I'm a tad dense. And interesting how your name came up recently in conversations with our friends at a certain university which is again going through staff upheavals. Let's try to have coffee sometime soon at Shaker Square Dewey's to chat about it. And best to your lovely wife, also.

 

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