To innovate, collaborate

At EmTech, AOL co-founder Steve Case urges new thinking on innovation

October 17, 2013

Revolution CEO Steve Case

Revolution CEO Steve Case

Steve Case knows a thing or two about long slogs, and says people shouldn’t expect the next wave of innovation to be easy, or quick.

As co-founder of America Online, Case knows better than most that the first Internet revolution took years of hard work—when AOL was founded, less than 3 percent of the population had an Internet connection, and there was little to connect with once they did get online. Building the Internet was a “slog,” but ultimately changed the world, Case said in an Oct. 10 talk at EmTech, a conference focused on emerging technologies and hosted by MIT Technology Review.

The next innovation revolution will involve harder problems, rely on unprecedented and difficult partnerships, and require openness to innovation in new places, said Case.

Today, as chairman and CEO of Revolution, a venture capital firm, Case is focused on several initiatives aimed at ensuring America’s entrepreneurial prominence. In a conversation with MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito titled “Investing in Innovation,” Case said his aim with Revolution is to find and invest in companies off the beaten path, outside the well-known tech centers in Silicon Valley, Cambridge, and New York. He is also working on the public policy front on immigration issues.

Case said he has noted a hesitance among venture capitalists to invest in companies outside traditional innovation and VC hubs. While he said he does seek to make a difference in communities in need of economic revival, like Detroit, he also confessed to having “a selfish reason” for looking to invest in companies further afield.

“While there are great companies a 20-minute drive away, not all great companies are,” Case said. “Not all great companies are in Silicon Valley, not all great companies are in California, not all great companies are in Massachusetts, not all great companies are in New York.”

“Those [other] companies, if you find them, usually they need your money and your help more because they’re often a little bit lonely,” Case said. “And usually you can invest in those companies at lower valuations than if they were in Silicon Valley. So there’s a desire to have an impact, but also an opportunity as investors.”

“I think, over time, in the next decade or so, all the top venture firms are going to have regional strategies,” as tools like crowd funding increase possibilities for companies in new regions, Case said.

But, Case added, the “next revolution” will involve partnerships, patience, and collaboration. The biggest opportunities for the next wave of technological innovation are in education and health care, he said, two areas that feature complex market structures and challenges that will require significant work and partnership with government and other organizations.

“What we all love about entrepreneurship is that passion, that urgency, ‘We can change the world, we can do it tomorrow,’ that sense of possibility is really important,” Case said. “But it’s not going to be like putting your app in the app store like Instagram and boom, you’re worth a billion dollars. It’s going to be more like a slog over a decade. It will be a network approach to innovation that requires more partnerships, not just within your company, but with other people, other companies, and governments, to try to create that disruption.”