Why You Can Thank the Government for Your iPhone

And Google. And Tesla. And a lot more

In the movie Steve Jobs, a character asks, “So how come 10 times in a day I read ‘Steve Jobs is a genius?’” The great man reputation that envelops Jobs is just part of a larger mythology of the role that Silicon Valley, and indeed the entire U.S. private sector, has played in technology innovation. We idolize tech entrepreneurs like Jobs, and credit them for most of the growth in our economy. But University of Sussex economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has just published a new U.S. edition of her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, makes a timely argument that it is the government, not venture capitalists and tech visionaries, that have been heroic.

“Every major technological change in recent years traces most of its funding back to the state,” says Mazzucato. Even “early stage” private-sector VCs come in much later, after the big breakthroughs have been made. For example, she notes, “The National Institutes of Health have spent almost a trillions dollars since their founding on the research that created both the pharmaceutical and the biotech sectors–with venture capitalists only entering biotech once the red carpet was laid down in the 1980s. We pretend that the government was at best just in the background creating the basic conditions (skills, infrastructure, basic science). But the truth is that the involvement required massive risk taking along the entire innovation chain: basic research, applied research and early stage financing of companies themselves.” The Silicon Valley VC model, which has typically dictated that financiers exit within 5 years or so, simply isn’t patient enough to create game changing innovation.

Mazzucato’s book cites powerful data and anecdotes. The parts of the smart phone that make it smart—GPS, touch screens, the Internet—were advanced by the Defense Department. Tesla’s battery technologies and solar panels came out of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Google’s search engine algorithm was boosted by a National Science Foundation innovation. Many innovative new drugs have come out of NIH research.

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