Recently, the National Geographic Channel had a series called, American Genius, which profiled eight historical rivalries that occurred over a new, ground-breaking technology. As you watched these men from Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla tussle over bringing inventions to market, one thing became clear. There are three types of entrepreneurs involved in any new enterprise, and it is rare to find a person who embodies more than one of the types.
First, you have your idea man (or woman). This is the inventor/creator. This person generates all of the new technology from airplanes to televisions to rocket ships. Then, you have your business person. This individual knows how to market the invention. They know how to put it into mass production, create a supply chain, and build a customer base. Finally, you have your investor. This is the person with the capital to start the business.
What was most interesting about the American Genius series was the role of competition in technology. In almost every case the documentary series reviewed, competition between two rivals over producing and selling an invention was a loss to society. It took years longer for people as a whole to see innovations to the airplane, because of patent laws Orville Wright kept using to squelch his competitor. Many people know how direct current electricity was used for years before Tesla’s superior alternating current was finally used, because of competition.
In each of the cases, cooperation would have worked better for all parties involved, including the entrepreneurs. More money would have been made, more product would have been sold, and the product would have been better. A lot of the time patent laws were responsible for this dampening of innovation.
Interestingly, the recent crisis with the Epi-Pen, which conservatives blamed on the government, was actually a patent law problem. Epinephrine is cheap, and anyone can manufacture it. But, the mechanism for delivering the medication, the plunger, is patented. Other companies have tried to develop other medication dispensing devices that don’t come near the patent-protected design, but they have not worked well. So, the company with the patent was able to suddenly jack up the price of the Epi-Pen 600%. The government is only to blame to the extent that they are enforcing patent laws that are heavily protected by conservatives, yet the belief in the public eye is the government is the problem.