Public vs. Private Research

Following the announcement of YC Research, several donations from billionaire philanthropists, and ongoing discoveries at Alphabet, our Dive discussion group explored the topic of public and private research. Here are some of the things we discussed:

Assorted Conversation Starters:

  • What type of research should the private sector fund? The public sector?
  • What is the distinction between private vs. public? Funding source? Whether results are made public or not? Who is conducting the research? Motivations of the research?
  • What type of research must be funded by the public sector? What types of things tend to be funded by the private sector?
  • Is one more effective than the other? How do you measure efficacy?
  • What types of goals should be associated with research?
  • Top talent is a scarce resource - where should they be spending their time?
  • Is failure more acceptable in one setting over the other?
  • Is it a good thing that more private companies are funding research?
  • What incentives exist for private sector research? Do patents make sense?
  • Do investors want their companies conducting research? How does the shift of Google to Alphabet relate to this?
  • Should tax incentives exist for companies that invest in research? That share their research?
  • Why does YC want to break into research?

Private Research (the points below were also up for debate)

  • More targeted
  • More efficient with spend
  • Greater immediate impact since market applications guide research areas
  • Researchers more focused; not distracted by teaching, tenure, grant money, etc. 
  • Positive externalities from creative research that affect overall company culture

Public Research

  • Step change innovation requires greater disregard for ROI and profitability, which public research can support
  • There is value independent of market potential to research; researching for knowledge’s sake
  • Public funding is required for disciplines and pursuits that are not easily monetized; there are many things the private sector would not fund
  • Private sector involvement can bias the output (e.g. Vioxx / Merck)
  • Public research often more collaborative with results made available, often eliminating redundancy of work; not true of research in the private sector where findings are held as proprietary insights
  • Can tolerate more risk
  • Better access to information since public researchers are unbiased 3rd parties

Google's Transition to Alphabet

  • Greater need for transparency 
  • Have any moonshots actually worked? Efficient use of cash?
  • Google is large enough to form Alphabet and has convinced investors that the moonshots are worth it; can other companies position themselves similarly?


  • Supposed to encourage innovation, but the system is outdated in many ways
  • Patent trolls
  • Patents require disclosure of invention - but descriptions often obfuscate essential facts, limiting ability for incremental innovation
  • Risk of being sued for IP infringement (unnecessary money spent on defensive and offensive tactics)
  • The requirements for what constitutes 'non-obvious' should be strengthened
  • Patent terms are too long for some industries 
  • 40-60% of patents are "un-used" - should there be a 'use it or lose it' approach?