William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration
Tom Nicholas is a Professor in the Entrepreneurial Management Group of Harvard Business School. He holds a doctorate in Economic History from Oxford University. Prior to joining HBS, he taught Technology Strategy at MIT's Sloan School of Management and technology and finance courses at the London School of Economics. He was also an economics consultant in San Francisco where he performed economic analysis for environmental and antitrust litigation including Sun Microsystems v. Microsoft. At HBS he has taught the first year course, The Entrepreneurial Manager, and he currently teaches in Executive Education programs on entrepreneurship and intellectual property as well as two second year elective courses: The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, which examines entrepreneurship, innovation and business development in the United States over the past 230 years; and Venture Capital in Historical Perspective (with Felda Hardymon), which focuses on the changing organizational structure of the venture capital industry and its impact on entrepreneurship and innovation over time. He has received the Faculty Teaching Award in both the Required Curriculum and the Elective Curriculum and the Charles M. Williams Award for teaching excellence.
His research focuses on the historical foundations of entrepreneurship and wealth accumulation in Europe, and on the organizational structure and incentives for innovation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, Britain and Japan. His work shows how the foundations of new technology formation across countries can only be understood by examining the coexistence of large corporations, formal R&D establishments and independent inventors operating outside the boundaries of firms. It also highlights that alternative mechanisms to patents—specifically prizes—can exert a powerful influence on the rate and direction of technological change. He has also constructed historical real estate price indices for Manhattan from the 1890s through to the Great Depression in order to understand the relationship between real estate and stock market cycles.
Technology, Innovation and Economic Growth in Britain Since 1870
This paper examines technological change in Britain over the last 140 years. It analyzes the effects of patent laws and innovation prizes that were designed to promote technical progress. It explores the challenge associated with the changing organizational structure of innovation and the shift from independent invention to R&D activity taking place inside the boundaries of firms. And it also studies the development of British industrial science in universities and efforts to promote innovation through the formation of industry clusters. Overall, the evidence supports the traditional story of British failure in generating large payoffs from technological development. Although from the early 1970s Britain experienced a revival in the quality of innovation and improved productivity growth, structural weaknesses in the commercialization environment still remain.
Did Bank Distress Stifle Innovation During the Great Depression? (with Ramana Nanda)
We show that R&D firms located in counties with more bank distress during the Great Depression experienced a substantial fall in the quantity, quality and novelty of their patenting activity. This was driven primarily by firms operating in capital intensive industries where the relative fall was greatest. However, because a sufficient number of R&D intensive firms were located in counties with lower levels of bank distress, or were operating in less capital intensive industries, the negative effects were mitigated in aggregate. Our results suggest that bank distress during the Depression era significantly stifled both the rate and the trajectory of innovation among the most affected R&D firms, but they also help to explain why technological development was still robust following one of the largest shocks in the history of the U.S. banking system.
Prizes and the Publication of Ideas (with Petra Moser)
We examine whether prizes encourage innovation, and if so, how. We compare changes in U.S. patents per year for technology areas where U.S. inventors won prizes for exceptional innovations at the World's Fair in London in 1851 with technology areas where U.S. inventors exhibited but did not win a prize. We also compare changes in technology areas for inventions that were advertised in 1851 as lead articles in the Scientific American, a major science journal of the time. We find comparable increases in invention after 1851 through prizes and publication relative to other U.S. technologies. Since the signaling component of a World's Fair prize was replicated through publication of an invention in the Scientific American, our results suggest that publicity for promising research fields is an important mechanism by which prizes encourage innovation.