Pushing further, pulling deeper: bridging the technology valley of death
In his masterful book on oil, The Prize , Daniel Yergin charts the story of ‘Colonel’ Edwin Drake, the ﬁ rst man to drill an oil well. It took an idea, technology, time, experimentation, determination and money. Arguably the most proﬁ table invention in history, it nevertheless illustrated the numerous obstacles and risks. Drake was only saved by the tardy US postal service: he ﬁ nally struck oil after Townsend – the brainchild behind the venture and its last remaining ﬁ nancial backer – had run out of money and posted the letter instructing Drake to quit. 1
Creating and commercialising a new product has always been a risky business. History demonstrates a reality which is far from the caricature of a ‘eureka!’ moment, with a new invention falling like manna from heaven and transferring easily to large-scale use. It almost always involves a long series of potentially costly and time-consuming enquiries, developments and experimentations. As scales and costs rise, innovators are in frequent tension with their funders. Economic rewards may take years, maybe decades, to materialise.