On the one hand, says Josh Lerner, many government efforts to try to boost entrepreneurship and innovation “are pretty ill-considered and best avoided.” On the other, “in many cases, if you just wait around for innovation and entrepreneurship to show up spontaneously, it’s not going to happen.”
Lerner, the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking at Harvard Business School and codirector of the NBER’s Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Program, has made a multifaceted career out of figuring out what works. Boulevard of Broken Dreams, one of 10 books he’s authored or coauthored, reflects his approach.
“The book is about government policy around entrepreneurship, how often the best of intentions in terms of encouraging entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the like go astray. I diagnose why they go astray and how that could be prevented.”
But his is far from the libertarian view espoused by many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “When you look at the history of Silicon Valley, for all the vocal skepticism of Washington there, you see the hand of government in many places,” he says. “Singapore, Tel Aviv, Shanghai — all these too have a strong hand of government helping guide them to success” as venture hubs.
Lerner studied physics and the history of technology at Yale College. Interest in innovation policy led to a first job after graduation at the Brookings Institution, working on how universities could turn scientific discovery and entrepreneurial insight into economic growth. Following jobs in Chicago and on Capitol Hill, he earned a PhD from Harvard University's Economics Department.
Lerner became an NBER affiliate in 1996. He was a coeditor of the 20-volume NBER series Innovation Policy and the Economy for nearly two decades and is now a coeditor of the successor series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Policy and the Economy.
Lerner’s research focuses on venture capital and private equity organizations and also examines policies on innovation and how they impact firm strategies. Venture Capital and enture Capital and Private Equity, a course he introduced at Harvard Business School in 1993–94 for second-year MBA students, is consistently one of the most popular elective courses at the school. He founded and runs the Private Capital Research Institute, a nonprofit devoted to encouraging access to data and research, and has been a frequent leader of and participant in the World Economic Forum projects and events.
In his spare time, he enjoys working with the American Bird Conservancy and the Essex County Greenbelt, especially when these provide excuses to get outdoors.