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Innovation Is Still Startups' Domain

If the announcement today by Judy Estrin's Precision I/O firm teaches us anything, it's that true innovation on the technology front still comes mainly from startup companies, where technically smart and driven people can follow their convictions without the turf battles found at larger firms.

Of course, it helps to be independently wealthy, and well-connected enough to have equally well-off friends who will invest in a company whose initial business plan doesn't involve any rapid return on investment. Those parameters marked the quirky beginning of Estrin's (and husband Bill Carrico's) Packet Design LLC, a geek think tank formed to ponder the stickier problems of IP networking.

But having a haven to spend some time solving such networking challenges is necessary, Estrin said. "These [problems] are hard," she said. "It takes a fair amount of R&D."

Sure, big companies might have R&D labs, but most of them aren't true innovation centers in the fashion of the old Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, Estrin said. Instead, these days the labs are mostly focused on delivering products that can be sold quickly, a pace that doesn't favor true innovation.

Startups can also move faster because "there aren't a lot of people to get in the way, or shoot things down," Estrin added.

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