2021 U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit


In September 2021, RAI convened the 4-day U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit with each day thematically focused on: 

  • Diversifying participation in the innovation ecosystem. 

  • Strengthening the foundations of intellectual property rights. 

  • Accelerating the commercialization of inventions. 

  • Identifying and funding the technologies of the future. 

Technological leadership is an essential strategic asset for the United States, underpinning its national security, global competitiveness, and economic growth. But this leadership did not just happen. It was the result of deliberate strategies that set up the public and private networks that encourage research and development, entrepreneurship, scale-up, manufacturing, and the marketing of new products and services for the market. Key features of this policy framework were developed in the period following the Second World War and refreshed in the 1980’s in response to the perceived competitiveness challenge from Japan.   

Sustaining this technological leadership over the next decades requires that we renew our innovation system to meet new needs and realities. A new strategy is needed to adapt to the emergence of new global competitors who see rapid growth in innovation and technological development as the path to advance their broader geopolitical objectives.  

Recognizing the tight link between global leadership in innovation and national security, CSIS launched a new project on Renewing American Innovation (RAI) in January 2021. The RAI Project aims to highlight how the United States can renew its innovation infrastructure to regain its competitive footing in global markets, foster inclusive economic growth and employment at home, and maintain its advantage in international affairs. 

Day 1: How Do We Revitalize and Broaden Participation in American Innovation? 

In his welcoming remarks, CSIS President and CEO John Hamre observed that the United States faces two great economic challenges in the 21st century: 

First, the U.S.’s world-renowned engines of innovation have begun to show signs of slowing, while foreign competitors look to become the new standard-bearers for global innovation leadership.  

And second, the American economy is bifurcating into two tiers of material prosperity: One is situated in a handful of metropolitan areas with robust technology sectors.  Another is in small towns and regional economies with heavy reliance on traditional economic activities.  

Welcome Session: The Imperative of Renewing American Innovation 

In the face of this challenge, American firms can no longer rest on their lead, remaining risk-averse, and unimaginative while outsourcing technical expertise abroad, as in recent decades.  Hamre suggested this challenge requires a robust response:  

  • Incentivizing Technology Transfer:Innovation is all about bringing new ideas from lab to market. We must support universities and laboratories in the commercialization of their research, aligning operational incentives with the larger strategic goal.   

  • Protecting Intellectual Property:We must strengthen intellectual property rights, recognizing the role of the patent system in driving disruptive innovation and incentivizing idea-sharing. 

  • Diversifying Innovation:We must expand our innovation infrastructure to make it both demographically and geographically inclusive. Too many Americans, whether they’re members of underrepresented groups in STEM or live away from major tech centers, are left out of the high-tech economy.  

  • Improving Access to Venture Capital:Great ideas with commercial potential can live or fail, depending on whether entrepreneurs have access to capital. Broadening access to capital for all Americans ensures more great ideas have a chance to reach the surface. 

Panel 1: Widening the Innovation Landscape 

Members of the first panel of the Innovation Summit agreed that inclusion must be a key feature of a 21st century innovation strategy. Traditionally, innovation in the United States have clustered around some large metropolitan areas like Boston, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle.   The panelists observed that if the U.S. is going to retain its status as the global leader in the technologies of the future, it needs to exploit the vast innovative potential of its smaller communities.  In this regard, they noted that the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which passed the Senate in July 2021, calls for the creation of a network of “regional technology hubs.”  

Panelists representing smaller urban communities across the U.S. called for: 

  • Building an Indigenous Innovation Infrastructure:  Betsy Cantwell of the University of Arizona and Almesha Campbell of Jackson State University emphasizedthe importance of incentivizing locally educated researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors to stay in the State to create new growth and employment. Growing these local innovation networks is needed if states are to address the problem of local talent moving to major metropolitan centers in other States for economic opportunity. 

  • Creating a Culture of Translational Research:Kevin Gardner from the University of Louisville suggested that many universities in smaller metropolitan areas lack a culture or appreciation for translating their research into a commercialized product, preventing many great ideas from reaching the surface. 

  • Incentivizing University Faculty to Engage in Innovation: Almesha Campbell pointed outthat the incentive structure for tenure at many under-resourced institutions discourages faculty from engaging in entrepreneurship or invention. Universities must provide credit for faculty to participate in the commercialization of their research. 

  • Intentional Equity:Christina Orsi with the University of Buffalo said that rapidly growing technology hubs must draw in and benefit a variety of stakeholders. She called for greater engagement with community-based organizations and non-traditional partnerships. 

  • Emphasis on “Place-Making":While investing in technology transfer and entrepreneurship is important, Christina Orsi urged that there must be a conscious effort to make new tech hubs places where young and talented people of all backgrounds want to move to and can afford to live. 

Day 2: Why Is Strengthening Intellectual Property Critical to Harnessing Our Innovative Potential? 

Clear and effective intellectual property rights (IPR) are essential to stimulate innovation. Patents, for example, not only reward successful innovation but also encourage the cooperation among small and large firms needed to develop new ideas and bring them to the marketplace. Entrepreneurial small businesses, especially, rely on a strong IPR framework to safeguard their new ideas from theft or infringement by others.  

However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and anti-trust sentiment in Congress have brought IP rights under assault, threatening to slow the development of disruptive technologies and destabilize a pillar of America’s innovation ecosystem. 

Participants in the second day of the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Summit explained the importance of strong IP in empowering innovators and maintaining America’s competitive edge in the global marketplace. 

Panel 2: Intellectual Property’s Importance for Maintaining American Competitiveness 

Following a brief introduction by CSIS President and CEO John Hamre, RAI Project Senior Advisor Andrei Iancu called for a new “Sputnik moment,” asserting that the United States has forfeited leadership in a whole host of strategic technologies.   

Iancu led a panel of IP experts to discuss the strategic and economic implications of attacks on IP rights, and how the innovation system must be protected for the benefit of inventors and innovators. The panelists agreed on the following points regarding IP rights and standards in terms of maintaining American competitiveness: 

  • Maintain Patent Predictability:Andrei Iancu emphasized the need for consistency in the patent system around issues of eligibility and injunction so that inventors and investors can have reasonable assurances that their investments will not go to waste. 

  • Eliminate “Efficient Infringement”:Judge Kathleen O’Malley cited a 2006 Supreme Court decision that severely weakened a patent-holder's ability to have a court-ordered injunction filed against an individual or firm infringing on their IP. This emboldened infringers and dramatically increased the risk associated with filing a patent or investing in a new patent-protected invention in the United States. 

  • Strengthen U.S. Standards Leadership:Iancu argued for a clear choice against international standards driven by the Chinese state-capitalist system and for those driven by the American free-market approach. He asserted that continued U.S. leadership in standards is important to maintain a level playing field for American innovators in the global marketplace. 

  • Restore Consistency in Patent Eligibility:Judge Paul Michel argued that the Mayo vs Prometheus Supreme Court case undermined a long-understood standard for what products could qualify for patent protection. While most international competitors were widening eligibility, the U.S. has shrunk eligibility, putting itself at a massive disadvantage. 

  • Stop weak IP related Capital Flight:Judge Michel also suggested that weak IP rights have caused venture firms to slow investment in areas that deal with patents (like critical technologies) and invest more heavily in trademark/copyright protected fields like entertainment, or in other countries with stronger IP rights. 

  • Encourage Diversity in the Use of IP:Andrew Hirschfield mentioned that women and minorities are still largely underrepresented in patent-filing and participation in the IP system. The U.S. must develop a strategy to increase the diversity of participation in inventing and entrepreneurship. 

  • Reassert Congressional Leadership in IP Decisions: Recent decades have seen the Judicial branch gain an outsized role in IP policy. Judge Michel urged that elected leaders in Congress must reinstate the Legislative branch’s status as the arbiters of our IP system. 

Kicking off this third panel, RAI Project Senior Advisor Kirti Gupta introduced the new landscape of the global economy and the role of innovation in economic growth. For many decades, economic models only considered labor and capital as the drivers of economic growth. Today, there is a growing recognition that intangible assets, those protected by intellectual property law, account for most of the market value. Technological advancement, driven by innovation and intangible assets, is now understood to be the primary indicator of economic growth. 

Gupta pointed out that strong IP law in the United States provides protection for the ideas that drive technological advancement and, therefore, economic growth. The panelists agreed on the following regarding intellectual property’s role in driving economic prosperity: 

  • Patent Protections Provide Critical Incentives:Andrew Toole, the Chief Economist at the USPTO, outlined how patents provide a critical economic incentive for invention. Without it, there would be no return on the effort required to invent, manufacture, and commercialize a new product or service. 

  • Patents Ensure the Transfer of Information:Toole emphasized that in order to enjoy their exclusive right to commercialization and licensing, inventors must disclose their ideas to the public, allowing for the sharing of information, which in turn drives further innovation. 

  • IP Facilitates Collaboration:Yann Meniere, Chief Economist at the European Patent Office, dispelled the misconception that patent holders usually maintain their monopoly once they receive protections. In fact, patent holders often choose to collaborate with others for the manufacture and commercialization of a product. 

  • Small Businesses Benefit Most from Strong IP:Meniere cited a study conducted by his office which found that while large businesses who made use of IP saw major benefits, small businesses that utilized a significant amount of IP saw even greater growth and performance. Kirti Gupta argued that large corporations already have mechanisms for protecting their ideas beyond IP rights. But for small businesses and individuals, patents remain the only plausible way of preventing IP theft and infringement. 

Day 3: How Do We Ensure Innovators Can Capitalize on Their Great Ideas? 

A common misperception is that innovations begin with a profound idea that is transformed in a linear process into new products and services for the market. In reality, new ideas go through long, complex, collaboration-intensive, and high-risk development processes before they become a commercialized product. 

Day 3 of the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Summit explores how technologies go from the lab to the marketplace and how we can make that process as efficient as possible. 

Panel 4: Investing in the Infrastructure of Technology Transfer 

In her keynote address, Katharine Ku, outlined several examples of how groundbreaking products like the Google search engine and gene-splicing technology nearly didn’t make it to the market. Ku emphasized that the key to driving innovation is to transfer as many promising technologies into the marketplace as possible and letting market forces decide who wins. But is technology transfer sufficient to ensure U.S. competitiveness? And what are the keys to successful technology transfer and how do technologies once transferred from a university lab scale up within the innovation ecosystem? The panelists agreed on the following points: 

  • Tech Transfer Has Proven Economic Impact:Orin Herskowitz, the VP of Tech Transfer at Columbia University, reiterated that Google, a product/company that originated from a tech transfer office at Stanford University, now employs 140,000 people and has brought untold benefit to the U.S. economy. It stands as an extreme but important example of tech transfer’s potential. 

  • University Tech Transfer Produces Societal Value:Herskowitz noted that the institutions represented on the panel combined receive 2,500 research submissions to their tech transfer offices each year and facilitate the licensing of 700 of those products annually. This is an impressive number of “shots-on-goal," as Herskowitz puts it, in finding the next lifesaving or industry-disrupting technology. 

  • Persistence Is Critical:Even the most groundbreaking technologies and products weren’t overnight successes. Panelists described the long, arduous processes of enticing venture capital and solidifying proof-of-concept before a breakthrough was finally made and the product went to market. 

  • Capital and Funding Can Be Scarce:Kelly Sexton with the University of Michigan mentioned that one of the biggest challenges for tech transfer offices like hers is access to “early stage, risk-tolerant capital,” a problem she attributed to her geographic location. Leslie Millar-Nicholson with MIT suggested that tech transfer offices need substantial budgets to do their jobs correctly, because they need the freedom to make bold, risky investments and lose some money in the long term to support promising technologies and products. 

  • Federal Support Is Needed:Steve Susalka, CEO of AUTM, expressed enthusiasm for a provision within the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act that dedicates federal funding towards tech transfer offices nationwide. He suggested that such funding will help de-risk the early stages of commercialization for many products that would not have had a chance otherwise. 

  • Great Ideas Come from Everywhere:Julie Lenzer from the University of Maryland argued that great ideas are not restricted to a certain region, gender, or background. Tech transfer offices around the country need the funding and independence to maximize the number of lifesaving or industry-disrupting products that get to the market. 

Launching the fifth panel, RAI Project Senior Advisor and Chief Economist at Qualcomm Kirti Gupta posed a fundamental question to the panelists: How is intellectual property linked to technology transfer? And how do the benefits sown by intellectual property enable technology transfer offices to bring innovative products to the market?  The panelists suggested the following responses to Gupta’s question: 

  • The U.S. Successful IP Model Is at Risk:Joseph Allen argued that global competitors like China are adopting the aspects of the U.S. intellectual property system that have served us well over the years, while the U.S. has been weakening its IP system. Allen urged U.S. policy makers to not forget the hard-fought lessons of the past and recommit to strong IP protections. 

  • IP Catalyzes Economic Growth:During her time at the MIT Technology Licensing Office, Lori Pressman suggested that, without strong IP, her office would not have had the ability to encourage companies to exploit the technologies that were licensed. 

  • The Bayh-Dole Act Invigorated Tech Transfer:Joseph Allen noted that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 finally allowed universities to retain title and exclusively license their inventions even if they received federal funding for the research. This opened private investments in federally funded and university-produced research and led to a sharp increase in the number of commercialized products and inventions coming out of some universities. 

  • Shrewd IP Law Is About Incentives:Kirti Gupta suggested that what drives innovation and invention is largely economic incentive. Inventors that profit from their commercialized idea are motivated to continue inventing.  

  • Weak IP Makes a Risky Process Even Riskier: Joseph Allen mentionedthat technology transfer and invention are inherently risky processes with slim chances of success. If the government does not protect small businesses from IP infringement, innovators and investors have even less incentive to take risks on new ideas. Ashley Stevens with Boston University brought up a professor he worked with whose invention took 12 years to get a patent issued. Ineffective rules surrounding patent eligibility and protection can inhibit inventors from bringing valuable new technologies to the market. 

Day 4: What Is the Role of Venture Capital and What Technologies Should We Focus on? 

Venture capital is a critical piece of the American innovation ecosystem, but venture capital tends to be concentrated in a handful of metropolitan supercenters. How can we make sure that funding for start-ups and innovators is more broadly available across the country? 

Another area of interest for policymakers is identifying what technological sectors the United States must exploit its competitive advantage in to maintain competitiveness in the global economy.  

The fourth and final day of the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Summit seeks to answer these two questions. 

Panel 6: Venture Capital and the Culture of Risk-Taking 

Introducing the sixth panel, former CEO of AOL Steve Case outlined the major issues facing the venture capital landscape in America today. He pointed out that so much venture capital goes to so few places: Roughly 75% of venture capital dollars go to California, Massachusetts, and New York. 50% goes to California alone, and a large portion of that goes to the tech epicenters of California like Silicon Valley.  At the same time, Case noted, the U.S. share of global R&D has shrunk from roughly 70% to just 30%, partially a result of international recognition of the importance of innovation, but also due to a lack of action from U.S. firms and legislators.  Addressing these issues, a panel of leaders in the venture capital industry shared their thoughts on the following points: 

  • Capital Is Not Enough:While great ideas and access to capital are important, Bobby Franklin of the National Venture Capital Association emphasized that we must remember that innovation requires an ecosystem to thrive. Without things like a talented workforce and tech transfer infrastructure, venture capital won’t be enough to create new hubs for innovation in different parts of the country. 

  • Investors Must Embrace Risk Outside of Clusters:Zachary Ellis of the New Venture Capital Fund discussed at length the importance of risk-tolerance among the investor community. Fund managers across the country must understand that venture investment is inherently high-risk and investing in start-ups outside of the typical metropolitan areas (while unfamiliar) may help fuel the development of new centers of innovation that will produce benefits down the road. 

  • Create a Culture that is Tolerant of Failure:Bryce Butler of Access Ventures attributed the success of Silicon Valley and other coastal innovation hubs to their culture of accepting failure as a part of the innovation process. While many communities in America’s heartland see failure as an outcome to avoid at all costs, both inventors and investors in successful innovation clusters embrace and celebrate the value of failure as a learning step along the path to success. 

  • Devote More Philanthropic Funds Towards VC:Butler also implored communities to commit more of the money dedicated to philanthropic activities towards venture investing. While VC is inherently riskier and may produce lower returns, helping to build an ecosystem that supports innovation will prove to be more beneficial to the community in the long run. 

In his keynote address, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Dr. Rafael Raif described what he sees as America’s competitive advantages in the global competition for tech dominance: the fact that the U.S. is home to the top universities in the world which produce and attract high-quality human capital and the presence of a shrewd investing community.  Dr. Raif urged the expansion of investment and engagement in use-inspired, impactful research aimed to address real-world problems like climate change and to reestablish the United States as a leader in the technologies that will dominate the economy of the future. At the moment, he lamented that the U.S. government grossly underfunds this type of research, while many promising technologies developed by small firms either fail or are developed overseas instead. 

Responding to Dr. Raif’s call to action, the panelists raised the following points regarding how the U.S. can lead the world in critical technologies, and where it must focus its efforts: 

  • Protect and Expand Our Innovation Ecosystem:Panelists agreed that the polycentric aspects of the American innovation economy give it a distinct advantage over top-down, state-directed found in other countries. Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios suggested that enhancing cooperation and coordination between the different nodes of America’s innovation ecosystem while retaining its decentralized nature is critical. 

  • Move International Cooperation Beyond Rhetoric:Kratsios and others mentioned that coordination on technological development with our allies is often restricted to words rather than action. To strengthen our own research capacity along with our allies, he urged that we must agree on a concrete set of priorities and take multilateral action. 

  • Focus On Promising Sectors:The panel agreed that quantum information science (QIS), artificial intelligence (AI), and biotechnology are critical sectors for ensuring America’s economic prosperity in at least the 21st While many of these may be "pre-competitive,” it is generally understood that they will be the drivers of the world economy in the future. Federal and private efforts should concentrate on making sure breakthroughs in these domains happen in the United States. 

  • Breakthroughs Reinforce Themselves:Steve Binkley with the Department of Energy’s Office of Science emphasized that advancements in sectors like QIS often require contributions from several other disciplines (chemistry, physics, engineering, etc.). Anything less than a holistic approach to STEM investment may slow breakthroughs from happening. 

  • Harness America’s Vast Diversity:Matthew McMahon with the National Institutes of Health argued that we need to broaden participation in our STEM workforce. Without input from Americans of all backgrounds and experiences, we won’t be able to address disparities during emerging crises like global pandemics and climate disasters.