INventorWe all have our favorite “computer guy,” “theater gal” or “tax guy” – to whom we turn to, and who’s sage niche expertise we blindly and gladly follow, because it just makes no practical sense to try to replicate their passion and depth of understanding. The system works great — a more personalized and astute human version of Amazon’s recommendation engine. Latest proof, a recommendation from my “quality reading guy,” and a very funny local author. He passed on this gem of an article New Yorker by David Owen “The Inventor’s Dilemma.”

David Owen’s story gives an insightful glimpse into Saul Griffith’s life – MIT’s supercharged “invention engine” who’s projects are financed by the likes of Google. Griffith gives a very practical description of how difficult it is sometimes to define from which side to approach global problems – technology or market.

Successful startups are lectured on the need to be addressing real market problems with their solutions. Easier said than done. Griffith found out that despite his invention of a simple machine that makes lenses for glasses so cheaply that they become affordable even to the poorest of the world, this was not the problem that needed solving. The solution actually already existed (cheap Chinese lenses), and the real problem was — lack of professionals to deliver prescription eye testing to the poor, for which Griffith had no technology solution.

Griffith’s also believes that capping greenhouse gases at levels currently recommended by climatologists to keep the global warming under control would require the biggest public works project in the history of the world and is financially and technologically impossible at this time.

It’s not the trilateral commission or some other shady organization blocking all the useful inventions – it’s just that coal (the most abundant fossil fuel) is simply too cheap right now, and the other energy technologies have not advanced far enough to be competitive. Griffith’s insights into power storage are concise and to the point:

Unfortunately the difference between the world’s best battery and gasoline, in terms of energy storage per kilogram, is not a factor of ten; it’s more like a factor of hundreds or thousands.

Griffith makes you wonder if sometimes we choose to narrowly solve technological problems because the alternative – changing social/market habits seems like a much more expensive quixotic quest. All start-ups, and especially “saving the world through green energy” start-ups, take pause to consider — will the technological solution you offer really solve the problem or merely expose the underlying social/market barrier.