Taking Innovation from Lab to Society

by Adi Gaskell

Taking Innovation from Lab to Society - Innovation ExcellenceUniversity and state-run laboratories are undoubtedly rich sources of potential innovation, with breakthroughs made in fields such as life sciences and technology powering innovations ranging from 3D printing to medical devices.

The track record is impressive, but the pipeline is an incredibly long and dangerous one. The transfer of science from our labs to tangible innovations in society can take many years, even decades to materialize. Being able to speed up this transfer could have strong implications for companies and society in general.

Greasing the wheels

At the heart of this process is what’s known as translational research, and a number of countries have created methods to try and improve the flow from lab to society. For instance, in the Netherlands, they have the Center for Translational Molecular Medicine (CTMM), which was created due to the appreciation that fundamental research was not finding its way to the patient fast enough and that a more collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach would help to achieve that transition.

The effectiveness of such centers has recently been explored in a new paper that was published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. It found that technology found its way from laboratory to the market was accelerated considerably, with over 50% of those projects under the CTMM umbrella reaching the market within 5 years.

The center also played a big role in the training of translational research personnel, with 1,500 full-time equivalent research capacity generated by CTMM.

“Lessons learned from this study may inform future innovation impact assessments by Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) and translational research centers designed to accelerate knowledge-based innovation around the globe in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia,” the authors say.

The importance of tapping into lab research

The value of being able to tap into what research labs are doing was underlined by a recent OECD report into how innovations are diffused throughout the market.  They highlighted a huge lag between the best and the worst.

“Our research shows that the slow productivity growth of the “average” firm masks the fact that a small cadre of firms are experiencing robust gains. OECD analysis shows that the productivity of the most productive firms – those on the “global productivity frontier” in economic terms—grew steadily at an average 3.5% per year in the manufacturing sector, or double the speed of the average manufacturing firm over the same period. This gap was even more extreme in services. Private, non-financial service sector firms on the productivity frontier saw productivity growth of 5%, eclipsing the 0.3% average growth rate. Perhaps more importantly, the gap between the globally most productive firms and the rest has been increasing over time, especially in the services sector. Some firms clearly “get it” and others don’t, and the divide between the two groups is growing over time,” they say.

A study published in Nature recently highlighted how most innovation is what is known as recombinative. This means that innovations are increasingly the result of combining existing innovations in new ways, rather than creating something completely novel.

The study revealed that 40% of patents fall into this category, with the ratio increasing rapidly. What this means is that to innovate, you need to keep on top of what is happening in your field, and then be able to collaborate with those people to create novel products and solutions.

Alas, this is largely an untapped route at the moment, with studies suggesting just 6% of businesses are currently working with state/university research facilities.

How to get started

Should you wish to go down this road however, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of the partnership.

  • Define the context – where does this project fit in your overall research portfolio?  Use this context to define specific outputs that provide a clear benefit to your company, and identify internal users who will work with this output
  • Select your team – try and find people that span boundaries. Your team should have in depth knowledge of the technology in their field, the ability to network across boundaries and therefore to make connections between research and product people
  • Set out your vision – try and communicate the vision you have of the collaboration to your university partners so that they understand your company’s goals and practices, plus of course the strategic context of the project
  • Think long-term – innovation is generally an ongoing process, so it’s important that the relationships you build with researchers are ongoing
  • Establish strong links – when you’ve established a working relationship with a university, think about how you can best communicate on a regular basis, whether in an organizational or individual capacity
  • Communicate internally – it’s crucial to communicate internally about the project, both in terms of what it’s trying to achieve and how you’re going about it
  • Maintain support until exploitation has been achieved – remember that the key here is to see your work reach the market, so it’s crucial that internal support is provided by technical and management oversight. The success criteria for your project manager should be the exploitation of the innovation

Research suggests that approximately 50% of university/business collaborations achieve market changing success. Hopefully, if you follow some of these tips your own effort stands a similarly strong likelihood of success.

image credits: newscenter.sdsu.edu

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Adi Gaskell tells us: “I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists, if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience, with my posts here focusing particularly on the latest research on innovation and change.” Follow Adi @adigaskell

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