Cool Guy, Another Innovation Book

Popped over to the lobby of the Four Seasons in San Francisco to meet up with John Kao, author of the just-out Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and How We Can Get It Back. Strikes me that the book's biggest challenge might be just breaking out from the other hordes of recent books with "innovation" in the title.

Kao himself might be the book's best selling point, since he has a career unlike just about any I've encountered. As a teenage keyboard prodigy, he wound up touring with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention band. Later in life, he dabbled in movies and wound up producing sex, lies & videotape. And then he taught at Harvard Business School for 12 years.

Anyway, his book, he says, stitches together trends including what's happening to U.S. universities, declines in R&D budgets, low rates of broadband penetration -- and concludes that the U.S. faces a crisis. "Fifty years ago, we had Sputnik, and the nation responded," Kao tells me. "This is a silent Sputnik moment. It makes the challenge more insidious and easy to ignore."

So he thinks we need a national discussion and some bold leaders who are willing to do things like create a DARPA-like agency for new approaches to energy. "We need a president who understands the problem," he says -- so keep that in mind when voting next November.

If you get a chance to read the book, drop us a comment and let us know what you think.

Kevin Maney covers technology for Portfolio.