If we accept that innovation can be defined as the process of turning an idea into product or service, we can see that both researcher and implementation activities are required. In the work of Prof. Henry Chesbrough ref1 the process is viewed as a funnel where ideas flow and arrive as technologies in various markets. The functional aspects of the funnel can be satisfied within a single institution or shared across multiple institutions. So we can see that the larger companies and universities can develop ideas and launch new technologies into the market place in the form of spin-out companies or new divisions, or license such technologies to third-parties.
Research into an idea is often termed “pure” or “applied”. Pure can mean that the idea under investigation has no predefined use case in society, or it is seen as a piece of “curiosity driven” research. Applied can mean close to the market, prosaic, or complicated by market forces. Of course, these perceptions seldom bear close scrutiny.
Public funding increasingly looks for societal impact, there is an expectation that research funded by the tax-payer will result in new jobs and new technologies in the market place. Purity is being tasked with impact.
So the question is where to strike the balance between pure and applied, speculative and targeted, curious and commercial? Naturally, the commercial sector will tend to focus on applied, targeted, commercial questions and the academic world focus on pure, speculative or curiosity driven questions. However, can either camp afford to focus exclusively on their primary targets? Research is conducted in an ever-evolving economic environment. Commercial entities are driven to pursue their core goals with vigour but should have a care for disruptive technologies on their borders. The anticipation and assimilation of disruptive innovation is a basic insurance policy for any enterprise. Likewise, it would be a foolhardy academic institution that would not court private investment with the lure of “readily applicable” science. So the purist must have an eye to the main chance and the applied should have air cover.
Harvard Business Review ref2 has an interesting article “Special Forces Innovation” where they refer to Donald E Stokes work, as Use-Inspired Basic Research (Pasteur) and Pure Applied Research (Edison), taking these two historical figures as exemplars, each of a particular research strategy. This hard-hitting, fascinating article will no doubt spur both reflection and comment.
Hedge your Bets
It would seem that a hybrid approach is reasonable, and our young scientists should be trained in academic rigour while being exposed to commercial influences as soon as practicable. In doing so, we will turn out not only innovation but talent who know how to work that mojo.
1. Topics in Open Innovation Seminar MBA 290.T by Henry Chesbrough, Faculty Director, Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, IMIO, Haas School of Business
2. Harvard Business Review, Spotlight on Breakthrough Innovation, “Special forces” Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems by Regina E.Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel
November 4th, 2013
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