Zero-to-One vs. One-to-Ten

written by Prof. Sungsik Lee on 19 Oct. 2017 (see more in Director’s Blog)


There are two kinds of technology development. One is to create something which never existed before, and the other one is to improve something which is already existing. The former can be treated as a fundamental step from zero (never existed) to one (creation or birth), and the latter is more likely to be a scale-up process (improvement or commercialization).

The case of the creation of a totally new idea is like a fundamental technology (so called ‘Zero-to-One‘). The first transistor invented by Bell lab is a good example. Since it was first invented in the world, it was ok even with very dirty and bulky looking. After that, many companies made it commercialized, thus the latter one as the scale-up process (so called ‘One-to-Ten‘). Nowadays, one of those companies is Samsung.

Now, the question is what do we need to do? and which one is more essential to have?

It is hard to answer these questions. But, at least, we can say that it depends. For example, companies should do the scale-up process to improve the existing product performance. On the other hand, a research lab and universities should try to create something totally new, and then keep it until some companies are interested to commercialize it. In other words, companies and research-based institutes have different roles each other.

zero to one

However, even if the company’s role is more close to commercialization, they should do the research in parallel in order to find something new – ‘ Zero-to-One’ technology. Why is it the case? The answer is that there are infinitely many paths of commercialization or scale-up process (see the figure shown above), meaning that other competitors can do their own ways to make anything improved. So, what a certain company has is not the one and only, so not unique to compete with others. In other words, although your improvement or scale-up idea is better than others, other competitors wouldn’t use it to avoid any royalty or license issue / payment. This also means there is a political game going on between competitors for the scale-up. As an easy example, there are so many companies who can make smartphones these days. But the real winner is the guy who created a unique thing, such as a communication chip, like the Qualcomm.

On the other hand, there is only one way of the zero-to-one path (creation of something never existed before), looking at the figure shown above. This means that the company, which has that kind of technology, can be very unique and that technology or idea cannot be duplicated by competitors. Even that company can consider selling that fundamental idea. A good example is DeepMind which was sold to Google with Huge money. The DeepMind, which developed ‘ AlphaGo’, was not trying to improve an existing, but trying to create something never existed before. Again, the transistor is another example of this case. After the first bulky transistor invention at Bell lab in 1947, companies, including Sanyo, SONY, etc., made a transistor radio replacing vacuum tubes. And nowadays, the size of transistors are getting extremely small for huge density, which turns out that it is a typical process of the scale-up. These companies are who bought the transistor technology (the only idea) from the Bell lab. So, as long as you have the ‘Zero-to-One’ idea, other companies should buy it from you, and impossible for competitors to avoid it.

Recently, the scale-up got an attention while overlooking the zero-to-one idea. Because those people believe that there are infinitely many good ideas, but difficult to find someone to commercialize it, meaning scaling it up. But, in reality, the ‘Zero-to-One’ ideas are very rare and only existing for only one for each category of technological areas. So, this also means that the usually good ideas are more likely some ideas to improve the existing.

Now, our mission, particularly for universities, becomes very clear, which is to find something never existed before. This is the ‘Zero-to-One’ rather than ‘One-to-Ten’.

So, it is time for us to do ‘Zero-to-One‘ as a kind of a start-up.