Innovation Talk: Innovation sector is like white-knuckle early days of aviation

Most terrifying of all, sometimes a company will attempt to change its engine in mid-flight, as it fundamentally modifies its product offering to avoid a market dead end

'No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris . . . [because] no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping". Orville Wright reputedly predicted a limited future for aviation in his comment in Illinois in 1909, six years after his brother Wilbur's pioneering flight in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in December 1903.

Listening to first-hand accounts of the first World War now being broadcast daily on RTÉ Radio, I have been reflecting on how technology – and particularly aviation – has so advanced over the last century. At the start of the war in 1914, flying machines were viewed as adventurous amusements for the wealthy classes, with at best limited military applicability.

However, 100 years ago this month, the new heavier-than-air machines made their first contribution in war. At the end of August 1914, Lieutenants Canter and Mertens flew their machine on a German reconnaissance mission over East Prussia, and discovered an unexpected build-up by the Russian army. Duly alerted, the German army countered and caused Russia to lose the Battle of Tannenberg.

Many marvelled at how it was possible for a heavy machine, loaded with fuel and crew, to accelerate across a field and hopefully take off. Pilots frequently struggled with fragile machines, poor cockpit instrumentation and an inappropriate fuel load – more fuel meant further flight range, but greater initial weight. Flying was often a white-knuckle affair as flight crew wrestled controls through the wind and weather, trying to navigate with limited visibility, ultimately to a safe landing. And now today, after a hundred years of near continual innovation and competition, aviation is mature and largely routine.


Of course, innovation continues in aviation, particularly striving to minimise environmental impact and to lower operating costs. More broadly, innovation throughout an open economy is critical since otherwise foreign competition will, in due course, displace stagnating firms. Start-ups are a key to a continuous flow of innovation and economic momentum.

I have been reflecting on the parallels between the very early days of aviation and an innovation sector. Start-ups accelerate but will they actually take off? Have they sufficient finance to sustain their flight or will they crash?

We also occasionally see the alternative of an overcapitalised start-up, thus heavily burdened with highly optimistic expectations and demands which ultimately result in the failure of the start-up.

The “cockpit instrumentation” available to an executive team and company board is all too frequently very limited, with poor visibility about operating conditions and what lies ahead. Founders and CEOs are often white-knuckle flying as they conceal the terror they feel inside as they nevertheless seek to reassure staff, customers, partners and investors that all will be fine.

Most terrifying of all, sometimes a company will attempt to change its engine in mid-flight, as it fundamentally modifies its product offering to avoid a market dead end and attempts to navigate into a new business proposition.

Founding and running a start-up is a wild flight. Enthusiasm and drive are essential to push the company forward in the market, and yet the company itself is almost invariably fragile as a consequence of uncertain business visibility and underdeveloped processes. Notwithstanding, there is equal danger in overengineering a rigorous management process and planning: the company may never in fact get off the ground and be paralysed by overanalysis.

At the start of this article, I deliberately misquoted Orville Wright, even though the statement is commonly attributed to him. In fact, he spoke of “airships” rather than “flying machines”, and so was referring to Zeppelin-like craft. He was almost certainly observing that the new technology of aircraft which Wilbur and he had invented was more likely to be successful than airships. In the event, a mere 10 years later, Alcock and Brown flew the first aircraft across the Atlantic in 16 hours in June 1919, crash-landing near Clifden. A month later, the R34 made the first crossing by airship, taking 108 hours – four and a half days, rather than Orville’s prediction of four days – from the UK to the US, and then 75 hours for its return journey.

The Wrights were great marketeers. They correctly criticised their chief competitive technology – the airship. Faced by an initial slow market acceptance in the US, they instead promoted their new technology in Europe. The French in particular enthusiastically embraced the new innovation.

At the start of the first World War, France was arguably the world leader in aviation, particularly for aircraft engines. When the US entered the war in 1917, its aviation technology was poor and it instead became hugely dependent on French and British aviation technology.

Technology pioneers of any era are frequently not recognised in their home market, and the Wright brothers were not only great engineers, but canny businessmen and entrepreneurs.