SDM’s James Utterback: burgeoning innovation where technology streams collide

James Utterback December 4, 2012

Where diverse streams of knowledge and technology collide one may find exceptional opportunity for innovation. James Utterback is the David J. McGrath jr (1959) Professor of Management and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Professor of Engineering Systems within the MIT Engineering Systems Division. His research focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship. In collaboration with Simon Fraser University’s Elicia Maine, Utterback analyzed startups that span nanotechnology and biotechnology and found that the companies that brought together materials, chemistry, physics and biology were more successful. "Creativity is a combinatorial process," said Utterback. "The more elements and chances there are to combine, the more you can expect to have startups and innovations."

Utterback is slated to moderate a symposium titled Confluence of Streams of Knowledge: Biotechnology and Nanotechnology that Maine and he organized for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston in February, 2013. Speakers at the symposium include such luminaries as MIT’s Robert Langer and Caltech’s Nathan Lewis.

The symposium will cover examples like tissue engineering, which brings together developmental biology, engineering and materials. Speakers will draw the distinction between traditional interdisciplinary collaboration, where specialists work on separate parts of projects, and work at the confluence of technology streams, where there is concurrent multidisciplinary collaboration.

The overall hypothesis can be generalized in lots of ways, said Utterback. Companies that have a greater range of users might produce more innovations, or fields where users are active and have tools to help create products might be more innovative, he said. Similarly, firms that organize multidisciplinary laboratories such as historically Bell Labs and Xerox PARC might be expected to create important innovations. "It’s a matter of how many connections are being made and how many sparks can be struck."

Utterback was the Technology Management Section (TMS) Distinguished Speaker at the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) 2012 annual meeting in October. His talk, titled "An Ecology of Innovation," calls for thinking of new products as experiments in the market. Innovation and startups are processes of experimentation that create and exploit rapid changes in the market. Typically established firms invest heavily in development efforts long past the time that rewarding improvements might be expected. Rather than seeking to reduce uncertainty and concentrate effort, companies might consider fostering greater experimentation, Utterback said. He is writing a book on the subject with Boston University’s Fernando Suárez.

Utterback is a founding faculty member of the SDM program as well as the Sloan Fellows in Innovation and Global Leadership, and the Leaders for Global Operations programs. "I like fields where engineering and management come together," he said.

The goal of the SDM program is to build up the skills and effectiveness of people who design reliable and effective complex systems, said Utterback. He gives the students in the program high praise. "It’s a lot of fun to teach them; they always have new questions," he said. "You can never anticipate everything they’re going to bring into the classroom." A key advantage the SDM program offers is its emphasis on primary sources over textbooks, said Utterback. "SDM is bringing a lot of current research into the classroom, which is one of MIT’s traditional strengths."

James Utterback