Poll: U.S. residents unsure about the future of innovation

About seven in 10 U.S. residents believe the next great technology entrepreneur will come from somewhere else, according to a new poll.

Asked where the next Bill Gates will come from, 29% of respondents in a new Zogby International poll said the U.S., while 28% said India, 15% said China and 11% said Japan. But the poll, released Monday, also found 67% of U.S. residents saying they believe the economic, educational and societal conditions still exist in the U.S. for another entrepreneur like the Microsoft founder to emerge.

Those answers may raise questions about the U.S. environment for innovation and entrepreneurs, said some panelists at a forum on tech innovation hosted by Zogby and 463 Communications, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm. The U.S. still has some strong factors in its favor, including a robust venture-capital market and a high-quality university system, but it also faces some challenges, said Donnie Fowler, a Democratic campaign strategist and tech entrepreneur.

But the U.S. is also losing foreign graduates of its universities to their home countries, has failed to revamp and make permanent a research and development tax credit, and has not adequately invested in all levels of education, he said. Despite those problems, the U.S. continues to have the most entrepreneurial culture in the world, he said.

"We're going to continue to lead for many, many years, but we're facing much stronger competition" from other countries, Fowler said.

Fowler encouraged U.S. lawmakers to focus on policies that can spur innovation. In some cases, the U.S. Congress in recent years has made it harder for entrepreneurs, he said. An example is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which tightened internal controls for U.S. corporations but also made it more difficult for new companies to go public, Fowler said.

"There's lots of policy issues here," Fowler said.

The respondents of the Zogby poll, however, seemed to question U.S. lawmakers' understanding of technology. Asked whether the average 10-year-old or a member of Congress knew more about the Internet, 83% went with the 10-year-old, and only 9% sided with the lawmakers.

The U.S. could eventually lose its innovation leadership, but some critics of the U.S. government's policy on innovation seem to focus on its position relative to other countries as a zero-sum game, said Chris Caine, president and CEO of Mercator XXI, a consultancy focused on helping businesses negotiate the global economy. Innovation and growth in other countries won't necessarily hurt the U.S., he said.

While the U.S. has lacked a focus on innovation in recent years, many U.S. residents still seem to misunderstand how interdependent the U.S. economy is with the rest of the world, he said.

"I think there's a key underappreciation in the United States of exactly how rapidly and extensively the world is changing," Caine added.

The Zogby poll asked U.S. residents to predict when the U.S. would come out of the current recession. Thirty-two percent said the U.S. would be the first major economy out of the recession, while 43% said the U.S. could come out of it at the same time as the rest of the world does, and 14% said the U.S. would come out after other major economies.

There seems to be a growing understanding of the U.S. economy's link to the rest of the world, said John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International.

The 3,030 poll respondents were also asked if the U.S. should "stick with" traditional jobs in manufacturing and other long-standing industries or whether it should focus on high-tech and service jobs. Fifty percent sided with high-tech, and 28% favored manufacturing. The poll was done from May 29 to June 1.

While Fowler cited the U.S. venture capital system as one of the country's assets, entrepreneur Shane Green, formerly of Nokia, said venture capital firms are now encouraging entrepreneurs to focus on ideas that make money fast, instead of creating groundbreaking new technologies.

"In the corporate world, R&D budgets are more and more aimed at incremental innovation rather than truly disruptive innovation," Green said. "Incremental innovation doesn't create the next Bill Gates."

This more careful approach has come to Silicon Valley, he added. "There's a lot less tolerance for truly creative, constructive ideas," he said. "There's simply less capital flowing in."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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