Innovation Should Be Less About Social Media Apps, More About Necessity 

Illustration of wallet filled with greens.

By Jason Williamson

This isn’t about hating on apps like Clubhouse – they’ve earned their chops – but innovation should come from true needs. Think sustainability, food security, prolonging life, and promoting diversity. This idea has been on my mind for a while now, especially during the pandemic, but Steve Case’s latest piece in the Wall Street Journal underscored my passion.

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Case has been supporting American entrepreneurs outside the traditional tech hotspots since launching his “Rise of the Rest” bus tour and fund in 2014. The main point: Innovation is happening everywhere, and we should support it. That’s been our ethos at Oracle for Startups since launching in 2017, so I really jive with his thinking. Not just for America, but globally.

In his piece, Case talks about how the pandemic saw entrepreneurs moving away from Silicon Valley, Boston and New York to places like Denver, Minneapolis and Austin. He explains: “The nation’s tech workers likely won’t work on the same kinds of projects that dominated their time when they were ensconced in their hubs. Entrepreneurs who previously worked in tech bubbles—places that have produced far too many photo-sharing apps—will suddenly be exposed to a wider range of real-world challenges that they likely would never have encountered without the pandemic.”

Spot on. Necessity is the mother of invention.

While big consumer apps get lots of media time, many amazing innovators have been quietly building solutions to solve big global needs. Elon Musk gets it, saying during a podcast that fewer people should start careers in finance and law and instead focus on innovation.

Hopefully the trend of moving away from tech bubbles will produce more entrepreneurs like Nils Helset. As a 15th-generation farmer, Nils saw first-hand the need for technology that could help farmers increase crop yields, reduce costs, and do it all more sustainably. So he founded DigiFarm, which develops deep neural network models to automatically detect field boundaries using super-resolved satellite imagery. With that in-field analytics technology, farmers can make data-driven decisions for precision farming.

Or consider the founders of Aindra Systems, who saw the high fatality rate from cervical cancer in their home country of India and decided to apply their entrepreneurial talents to solving it. Aindra Systems developed AI-based computation pathology tools to read imaging tests right after they’re taken, allowing screenings and treatments to be done from anywhere. Thousands of women have been screened since clinics deployed the platform, with thousands more ahead as the startup pushes to lower death rates.

One suggestion in Case’s piece that I’ll push back on just a little is that a move to Middle America—away from the coasts— is what opens the eyes of entrepreneurs to real-world necessities.

The beach was an important part of Rob Ianelli’s childhood, especially Norton Point on Martha’s Vineyard. And the beach is still an important part of his life now that he lives in Santa Monica, California.

It was spending so much of his life on the coasts that inspired Ianelli to found Oceanworks, a startup intent on banishing plastic from the ocean. The online marketplace for recycled plastic materials and products has more than 100 customers and a supply capacity of more than 190,000 tons of ocean plastic a year from collection sites across six continents. Oceanworks runs a track-and-trace application to certify that the plastic that manufacturers source really is recycled ocean plastic so their customer base, which includes Fortune 500 companies, can prove their eco credentials.

And just to stay on the West Coast a little longer, Frontlines of Justice is reimagining education through the lens of film, technology, and high-fidelity storytelling. Think Netflix meets MasterClass. That startup was founded by a group of justice-focused entrepreneurs, who also happen to be influential filmmakers and storytellers. They saw the need for a new kind of online learning platform that could help tackle racial and social justice challenges head-on.

Jason Williamson of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research.

I’m lucky to get a front-row seat to the work those entrepreneurs are doing through their participation in Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research.1 And I’m happy to see innovation happening by so many other startups across important sectors of the economy, powered by game-changing new technologies like AI, cloud, blockchain, and advanced analytics.

The advent of smart cities is one especially exciting area of progress. Startups are building technology that’s making urban centers cleaner, safer, more sustainable and less vulnerable to natural disasters. The wave of innovators moving away from tech hubs are seeing the unique problems faced by different metropolitan areas, and they’re getting a first-hand understanding of what it takes to build solutions, which often involves working closely with, and in close proximity to, local governments.

But these companies will all face challenges—about 90 percent of startups fail.

According to CBInsights, 42 percent of those failures are due to misreading market demand. But the second leading reason for failure, attributable to 29 percent of cases, is running out of funding, which is often just personal money.

That tells me that many of these companies could have succeeded, and done so much good for the world, had they only had more financial support during those difficult early phases all startups experience. So as the pandemic shifts the focus of entrepreneurs to solving challenges more important than sharing photos, established technology companies should look to help them break through to profitability and long-term success.

Jason Williamson is the global head and vice president of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

  1. DigiFarm, Aindra Systems, Oceanworks and Frontlines of Justice are all participants in Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research.

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