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Does too much money impede innovation?

We all know that money is a vital lubricant of the innovation process, for so many reasons and at so many levels. Yet I can't help wondering if sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

What made me think about this was a recent announcement that Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, a Cambridge, MA research center that focuses on the use of genomics in medicine, has received a $400 million endowment from founding benefactors Eli and Edythe Broad, bringing the couple's total gift donations alone to $600 million. That's a lot of money, and it's just the next in a long line of donations and grants that Harvard and its top tier siblings have received.

Not that they necessarily need it. Harvard's endowment is about $35 billion (that's “billion” as in “1000 million”), and neighbor and occasional rival MIT has an endowment around $20 billion. That's pretty serious money to have in the bank, and it doesn't include their assets (land, buildings, IP, and more). As I heard a wag explain it, if you landed on Earth from another planet, and looked objectively at Harvard and others in their league, you would conclude that these are really money-management institutions that also run schools as a sideline activity–and you'd be right.

But my concern is not about the ethics or fairness of top-tier institutions having so much money to play with, while always crying “please, give us more.” After all, if people want to give their money to these institutions, hey, it's theirs to do with as they wish.

Instead, my concern is that too much available money leads to very big projects, and very big projects tend to have lots of vested interests, meetings, internal and external politics, bureaucracy, complex reporting structures, oversight committees, and all the other nasty characteristics that can stifle innovation, flexibility, risk-taking, and the other factors which we know are critical to innovation. Sure, it takes money to pursue ideas and projects, but sometimes too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.

I just finished reading a book about the initial conception, design, redesigns, decade-plus delays, and numerous problems of the now-lauded Hubble Space Telescope (HST), entitled “The Universe in a Mirror” by Robert Zimmerman. It's a complicated story, of course, but one message that comes through is that a project as big, ambitious, and expensive as the HST also was enmeshed in lots of bureaucracy and politics. Certainly, given the amount of money involved, there was a legitimate need for oversight and review.

But still, you have to wonder if innovation would not be better served by having more modest projects, buy more of them, along with more freedom. In “Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company” by Michael Malone, the lab at Stanford University (where they met and worked, along with their mentor Prof. Fredrick Ternan), did amazing work in those very early days of electronics despite a formal budget of a few hundred dollars, and whatever they could beg, borrow, or improvise. Lack of money was both an impediment and an inspiration.

If you look at most of the innovations in our industry, they have come from small-to-moderate efforts (many sponsored by very large companies, of course) who apparently understand that bigger research and dollars often yields inversely proportional results.

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