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New America NYC: Are We Still Innovating in America?

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It has been argued that America’s greatest export is its ideas. After all, companies around the world depend on America’s technology, from pioneering hand-held gadgets to devastating modern weaponry. 

But have America’s ideas plateaued?  And what role should the government play to help facilitate innovation?  These are just a few questions that were tackled at New America NYC’s event, “Are We Still Innovating in America?” 

The panel of speakers included Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot Industries, Andrew McLaughlin, entrepreneur-in-residence at betaworks, Sam Grobart, technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and New America Future Tense fellow Romesh Ratnesar, also, deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, moderating the conversation. 

The event kicked off with a discussion of the economic climate for innovation, which Pettis argued is excellent, noting that always advancing technology allows entrepreneurs the ability to dream up an idea and act on it quickly.

“There has never been a point in history where ideas came to fruition so easily,” he said. 

Engineers can test out products repeatedly until they get it just right.  Foreign competitors, however, have that same advantage, so how does America stay ahead? 

McLaughlin took a stab at answering this, arguing the U.S. government could become one of the biggest investors for start-ups, as long as there is a manufacturing end that can hire in the triple digits. The government wants to invest in firms that will employ more people as they grow. Software firms are less attractive for government investment because they can be manned by a small number of people, but if there are tangible products being made, the government could be a potential cash cow. 

However, more avenues for fundraising are springing up.

Unlike the Venture Capitalist days of the 90s, companies like Kickstarter are making investing a more bottom-up process.  Instead of pitching ideas to foundations, entrepreneurs can now often obtain funds from a broad array of individuals, using social media platforms and targeted advertisements. 

The panel also discussed laws and regulations that affect innovation, saying they seem to have been playing catch-up with technology for the past decade, for instance, with the dated “Children Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998”. 

However, the Federal Trade commission recently announced it has plans to broaden and tighten web privacy laws.  This means start-ups and ad agencies will most likely have a harder time tracking users’ cookies.  It also foreshadows a grip on the Internet’s free flow of ideas that may stifle innovators in the future.  But speakers agreed that weather the government tightens regulation, innovators will always find ways to get their ideas off the ground. 

— by Karam Sethi 


Sam Grobart
Technology Writer, Bloomberg Businessweek

Bre Pettis
CEO, MakerBot Industries

Andrew McLaughlin
Entrepreneur-in-Residence, betaworks

Romesh Ratnesar
Deputy Editor, Bloomberg Businessweek
Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation