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Kodak, the 131-year-old photography pioneer, filed for bankruptcy on January 19th 2012.Eastman Kodak announced early this morning that filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy was “the right thing to do for the future” of the company.In a statement, Kodak CEO Antonio Perez said company leadership decided the move was “a necessary step.”Innovation Trail has followed the story over the course of 2012.

Innovators to feds: invest in us and set us free

Kodak is hoping to help innovators get their ideas to market when the lightbulb comes on. Is the federal government a friend or foe in that effort?
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Kodak is hoping to help innovators get their ideas to market when the lightbulb comes on. Is the federal government a friend or foe in that effort?

Kodak held a panel discussion last night, about materials sciences and the innovation process, as part of the unveiling of its new Innovation and Materials Science Institute (IMSI).  We live-tweeted it from @InnovationTrail and you can find the play-by-play on our timeline, but here's the synthesis for those of you who prefer narratives.

On board for the event were Ron Valente, a VP over at polymers firm Novomer, Nabil Nasr, the director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability and CIMS at RIT, Brad Kruchten, a senior VP at Kodak, and Kelly Carnes, president of the advocacy organization TechVision21.

A large portion of the event was spent parsing out exactly what IMSI will do with its "funnel."  That's the notion that getting more start-ups in the pipeline will make the inevitable failure of many of those projects and ideas happen faster - so that resources can be moved to the more promising ones.

IMSI will facilitate the funnel by recruiting firms that need help scaling up their product, and putting them in touch with resources like manufacturing lines and labs, left over from Kodak's heyday.  Kruchten calls it "eHarmony for innovation."

But that relationship is not without its challenges.  The question of how to manage intellectual property in this sort of relationship came up almost immediately.  And Kodak doesn't yet have an answer.  Kruchten says for some companies participating in IMSI, Kodak will share or license IP that helps bring new products online.  Other companies might get acquired by Kodak if their ideas are "big" enough.  And other firms might get turned away from IMSI if they're viewed as competitors.  However it pans out, Kruchten says the goal of IMSI is to systematize the process so that firms aren't constantly reinventing the wheel.

Another concern that dominated the conversation was the perceived lack of investment by the federal government in materials science research. Carnes noted that much of what the government invests in is basic research - not the proprietary, cutting edge research that keeps U.S. interests on top, and not prototypes that help bring products to market.  Carnes says the government is also incredibly risk averse when it invests in research.  It doesn't want to spend taxpayer dollars on projects that might fail, despite the reality that most start-ups fail. 

How could government do better?  Carnes says she'd like to see it develop priorities and thresholds - like certain targets for emission reduction - and then leave private firms to figure out how best to accomplish those goals.  That's as opposed to saying "let's go big into batteries for electric vehicles," and ignoring the other efficiency gains that could be made via engine redesign or aerodynamics. The same goes for regulation, Carnes says: go for results-based regulation ("fewer deaths from ladder falls"), rather than rules-based regulation ("employees can't use ladders").

It's not just industry that's frustrated with the way the feds fund research though.  Nasr pointed out that university researchers often have to apply for their grant funding every year - and that longer-term funding commitments, like five years, would provide more consistency.  As administrations and priorities change, researchers are buffeted, and good ideas sometimes get trapped in the lab, never to see the light of day.

Is IMSI the end-all be-all?  The crew at Kodak is up front about it: IMSI will not replace Kodak's R&D, this is not the future of Kodak. But Kruchten says he's optimistic that within five years he'll have 30 to 40 firms in "the funnel" - winnowing out the best ideas, and flushing the rest.  We'll keep you posted on their progress.

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