America risks being "too timid to fail"

October 31, 2012: 12:59 PM ET

Like other critical national resources, entrepreneurs deserve nurturing to be a vital and enduring force.

By John Doerr and Ted Schlein, contributors

FORTUNE -- As we fast approach the U.S. elections the rhetoric about the economy is hitting a fever pitch. It is important that policymakers, pundits and the public look past the polls to embolden our entrepreneurs...lest we become "too timid to fail."

Entrepreneurs are re-imagining and re-inventing everything from mobile phones to new businesses -- even whole industries. They are replacing the Old Internet of web sites and pages with a New Web connecting people and places. They are pushing computing, communications and services to the ubiquitous Cloud. They are replacing fossilized, carbon polluting energy with innovative, efficient, and renewable solutions. They are moving from "one drug or device fits all" to targeted therapies and from costly to accountable health care. They are even disrupting the bastions of traditional education -- K-12 through college -- with massively open online courses.

In the process, entrepreneurs are driving economic growth and prosperity. Entrepreneurs are and have always been America's greatest natural resource. Today venture capital-backed companies create 21% of GDP and have generated over 12 million U.S. jobs. But, like other critical national resources, entrepreneurs deserve nurturing to be a vital and enduring force.

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Fundamental technological innovation -- from genomics to the Internet -- has always depended on four factors: Federal funding, great educational institutions, risk-taking entrepreneurs and venture capital.

For years most Federal research and loan programs have enjoyed bi-partisan support. However, in this election silly season those programs are being held political hostage. This is just wrong. If we are "too timid to fail" -- if we don't invest in grand challenges -- we will fail to seize the future. Instead, let's increase R&D funding at our great research institutions for what matters most. It makes no sense that today Americans spend more money each year on potato chips than on new energy research. Let's continue to make responsible, strategic investments in key areas of innovation and potential growth. And make sure that research gets applied through technology transfer from university labs to independent companies.

Make no mistake, while advocating investments in federal R&D we must rein in wasteful spending and make hard choices to balance the budget. A disciplined debt-reduction plan like the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles proposal is necessary. But note: no amount of budget cuts or tax increases will suffice without strong economic growth. That requires innovation and entrepreneurship together with targeted investments and tough reforms.

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Further, for America to remain the world's Innovation Nation we need an educated, skilled workforce. We must have rigorous, high standards in education, for both students and teachers. We need a real education revolution ­ with speed and at scale. Online learning can transform K-12 through college education. Imagine 100,000 more math teachers armed with Khan Academy courses in the classroom and at home. Imagine millions of community college students getting online skills training or Coursera courses from great universities. There are over three million open jobs in the U.S., unfilled for lack of qualified applicants.

We admit the world's best and brightest to our universities. Let's get them to stay in the U.S. and create jobs. According to a 2007 Duke Study, more than 25% of U.S. technology companies were started by immigrant entrepreneurs who have created 450,000 jobs and over $52 billion in sales. We should make it easier for future entrepreneurs to stay by stapling a green card to the diploma of every foreign national with an advanced degree in engineering or science. The U.S. Congress is debating this very proposal; passing legislation should be a top priority in the post-election lame duck session.

America has long been a nation of immigrants and inventors, of designers and doers. Let's re-commit to Federal funding for bold innovation ­ without fearing failure. Let's drive high standards and outcomes in education. Let's commit to fiscal responsibility and smart investments. And let's staple green cards to diplomas, all so thousands more entrepreneurs grow jobs and win the future.

John Doerr and Ted Schlein are venture capitalists with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Menlo Park, CA. Full disclosure: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is an investor in Coursera.

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