Category Archives: Uncategorized

Innovation-Placing our Bets

Funnel Vision
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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Doctoral Students in the Service of Two Masters

A young doctoral student has worked hard for several months coming to terms with their chosen field of study, taking guidance from their academic supervisor and settling into their environment in their university. They have also spent time with their industrial sponsor, working in their offices, getting to know their business and staff.

Functional Duality

In doing so, a functional duality has developed. On one hand the student lifestyle continues, all be it, on a higher intellectual level, increased independence, self-regulating and an enormous reading load, as they read around their new subject area looking for the possible research questions that will result in their doctoral thesis.
On the other hand, they find office life, commercially driven, tightly timetabled, with practical milestones and deliveries, lacking the camaraderie of student life but sprinkled with regular, targeted and timetabled interactions with older professionals.

Worlds Collide

Progress is strong, even rapid. Academic rigour has provided a great basis for the pursuit of the research topics and constant refinement of putative research questions and resulted in a targeted, well-reasoned approach to a clearly defined gap in current knowledge. Innovation is better served by proximity to development resources.
Even in the most supportive scenarios, sooner or later, the two worlds of industry and academia will clash. As the needs of academia and industry temporarily diverge, our student can be drawn into an argument, which they are singularly unqualified to settle. The student has enough to do and should not be drawn into what is essentially a management disagreement. There are two supervisors with responsibilities, who along with providing the joint funding, monitoring the research questions, managing the student, reviewing progress, tracking IP and preparing publications also need to resolve schedule conflicts without stressing their young apprentice.

Close and Closer

As I have said in an earlier blog “Keep your academics close” and now add “and your industrial partners closer”. We all have potential conflicts to resolve, this conflict is no more challenging than any other. The efficiencies gained by industrial involvement, are balanced by the necessity to perform exercises from time to time that will not appear in the final thesis. The industrial relevance of a set of research questions certainly helps to enlighten the introduction and conclusion chapters of a thesis, not to mention the availability of resources not to be found on campus. Certainly the well rounded researcher that results from such a project is immediately attractive to industry and academia alike.
So don’t forget, your resource is a sponsored doctoral student, not quite an employee and not only a student. In public, let’s stick to the schedule and the science, we should save the horse-trading for behind closed doors.

October 22, 2013

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Keep your Academics Close

The Innovation Funnel

Check out the work of Prof. Henry Chesbrough at UC Berkley, on innovation ref1. I interpret his funnel as a transition from learning; starting with research, moving into licencing considerations then on to partnership with development teams and on into marketing and sales. The model works forward from knowledge, through ideas taken out of the labs and inserted into products in the marketplace.

Researchers have a contribution (largely back-loaded) all along this series of transitions, right down to assisting sales teams by being invited to sales meetings to dazzle potential customers.

Across all these phases we have teams with differing expertise, so designing the handovers is of prime importance. Have we built competence and confidence in the recipient team? Can we support the recipient team towards not just understanding but mastery?

Why work with academia? Companies have resources that academia does not have. Money, influence with other companies, contacts, resources. Universities have libraries, rigour, time, ideas, and access to multi-disciplinary expertise.

Listen, learn and help

We have our academic researchers in the office two or three days a week. This builds a two-way conduit for tacit knowledge, while allowing you to check progress and direction. The company learns of the intricate nature of the new field being explored and can ground this knowledge with everyday questions. The academics come to grips with the company, its culture, personalities and products.

Be clear on IP

We have two worlds working together that operate in different currencies; academics publish, companies patent. Every enterprise has an IP portfolio, some of it defensive and some core to product. Given the costs of patenting, when it comes to the crunch everyone is slow to patent non-core material. If it is non-core, this means you can learn these new techniques and the academics can publish. Everyone is happy.

Play a long game

Daily pressure provides us all with a short-game, we also need a long-game. We live in a rapidly changing society, exciting, confusing and often shallow. This is not new, “….the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small” this observation is at least two millennia old ref 2,and can be applied to research.

As a result of working with academia in this manner, you are better trained, connected at a more profound level with your development groups and familiar with academics who understand your business. Markets move and you find yourself better prepared for opportunities.

Sometimes you get to retain these bright resources, often you let them move on, but you should remain connected. They will continue to publish and your company will continue to learn and their time with you will continue to be an important element of their research careers.

ref 1. Topics in Open Innovation Seminar MBA 290.T by Henry Chesbrough, Faculty Director, Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, IMIO, Haas School of Business
ref 2.

September 13, 2013

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Innovation – Working with Academics

There is famous advice; If you want to succeed, surround yourself with the best people. It seems logical that we would seek out those who teach what we wish to develop. So the academic world is where we go to gather the threads of future technologies and weave them into the fabric of innovative products. However working with these savants is not all plain sailing.

Ying and Yang

They can be clever, wilful, focussed and obscure in any and all combinations. Let’s compare these two worlds. In the world of science, a doctorate through research takes three or four years minimum and much longer in some countries. In commercial parlance that is about sixteen quarters. So we have an inherent timing disjoint of about an order of magnitude. This means that any commercial problem has to be clearly stated and the research monitored closely to garner early results and keep the investigation alive.

Academic research is often poorly funded, this can be an advantage to industrialists, because with money and relevant data, a project can move along really quickly. You have to remember because they are always looking for money, getting money can become a goal in itself. Our job is to ensure it is not the goal but the means to successful investigation.

Those who teach

Don’t forget, you have gone to those who teach, i.e. research is not their full time job. In fact it is a curricular hobby, where the academic is paid to teach but can only climb the promotion ladder by publishing research papers. Fortunately for us, but perhaps not for their students, they love to do research.

Five years ahead

Novel research would tend to be five plus years ahead of the commercial game. Five years is twenty quarters. Only the largest /oldest / most-visionary companies can afford that long game. This is where government steps in to sponsor research so as to ensure research groups have sufficient longevity to yield results. Government sponsorship of course comes with accountability to the tax-payer, so expect a certain amount of scrutiny and a serious conversation about intellectual property.

An hour can change your life

Once you engage, you find yourself impressed and mystified by the wealth of brain-power in this new environment. This sense of wonder often gives way to frustration as you try to channel this effervescent resource into short term goals. In time you learn a measured appreciation of who is listening to you and what can be done in the time frame. A year can leave you frustrated but an hour can change your life.

Quick wins

Often it comes down to team dynamics, you simply work better with one rather than another. In general the closer you are the more you learn, the more you learn the more you can transfer into your company. I don’t think it is a remote exercise, pass on a requirement and wait for a report, although some people do it that way. I think it takes time, dedication and effort, you have to invest to harvest. A few quick wins are always welcome but the general direction is always good. Certainly there are many opportunities to be amazed.

February 26, 2012

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Administration or Innovation

First of all apologies for the long hiatus in contributing to this blog, I have allowed the clutter of the everyday to smother this activity. The title brings to mind the famous title of the medical conference “Smoking or Health” back in the 60’s. Can we really do both? Is it possible to innovate and administer, at the same time, with the same head or in the same job?

Remember those dizzy, too rare spark “innovation” events where the mist clears and you begin to perceive that there might be a road ahead.


Administration has its charms; the details, the goals, measureable, accountable, planned, scheduled, pre-ordained, even destined and one must say rewarded in our goal oriented business culture. Important as this is, it is insufficient in itself, unsustaining in isolation and ultimately bounded in its accomplishment.

Not so sure about Certainty

In contrast we have the insight moment, sometimes out of the blue, – often extracted from a maelstrom of numbers – where the dots join up or nearly join up – still wearing a veil of ambiguity obscured in a cloud of mystery, flecked with questions but DEFINITELY a POSSIBILITY.

A favourite Einstein quote “….”If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”…I cling to this, because there are always a million reasons why something may not be so, to set against the current uncertainty that it might be so.

Don’t discourage the sceptics, they keep us honest, even as you protect the fledgling idea. What does not kill the idea will make it stronger!

Make 2012 an Innovation Year

But this blog is about innovation, the blog’s lack of performance over the last months is due to an inability to make the time to consider rather than deliver. Let’s inject more thinking time into 2012 and see if we can seed the decade with ideas that will secure both our future and that of our much loved administrators, while bringing balance to those of us who do both.

February 19, 2012

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Doing Two Things at Once: Managing Innovation

The Challenge

We all want innovation but where do we find the time? The every-day presses in on us from all sides. As we try to manage this process it becomes obvious we have a challenge. I’m not sure manage is the correct term to use in respect of innovation. We have to develop two attitudes, two responses, two cultures; one we can apply to the 9 to 5 job and the other to nurturing innovation in our organisations.


Somewhere in your organisation this duality comes to rest on a single desk. On one hand process, behaviour, task management is optimised, automated and measured against goals. This activity is expected to demonstrate efficiency and contribute to return-on-investment. On the other hand, one is expected to nurture exploration, novelty, risk-taking, new technology with fuzzy use-cases. Can you court failure and motivate your staff to make career choices on this basis? Even more striking, one encourages disruptive novelty that may destroy or replace your current value proposition, department, or current business model. So, can you drive efficiency on one hand and encourage potential failure with the other? In effect, the challenge is to manage two opposing cultures simultaneously. The culture necessary for innovation looks like the one which can be subjugated in a crisis, as one strives to survive the week, rather than model the future.

As always, one realises that this is not new in itself, but has been recorded many times in the passing centuries, as innovation led development. Machiavelli covers this ground, rather cynically, in The Prince (1513).

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Today’s Certainties are Tomorrow’s Mistakes

History abounds with once successful technology companies in specific market segments; valves in electronics, PC hardware manufacturing, word processing software, operating systems, are four examples that enjoyed total dominance in their hey-day, only to founder in the changing tides, unable to reorient their business structures and practices in time to meet new market forces. If you are not ready to reinvent yourself, surf the changing tides of technology, and even cannibalise your current business to build tomorrow’s business, you are already drifting downstream into the seas of commodity and obsolescence.

The tides of change are as powerful as ever in today’s markets. The mobile/notepad business is a prime example. Market leadership monetary expectations are measured in billions of dollars, but in months in terms of longevity. Obscurity awaits the less agile.

Find the time, divide your management style, explore the novel, swim upstream and spare a moment to tell the rest of us how it is going.

April 10, 2011

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Innovation – One Day at a Time

Innovation – not an agenda item

Ideas where do they come from? John Cleese (English Comedian) is very clear on the subject. “I don’t know where ideas come from, but I know it is not my laptop”. Richard Watson in his book Future Minds devotes many pages to getting ourselves away from the laptop and into the habit and habitat of generating ideas. Innovation is not an agenda item. It does not happen to order.

At a micro-level, how does one encourage innovation? To generate innovations we need a stream of ideas. How do we encourage a stream of ideas? And given a stream of ideas how so we filter, harness and develop them into innovations?

First things first, as Thomas Edison says “The way to have good ideas is to have lots of them.” So we need to establish an environment where ideas can be encouraged and expressed freely. Where do you have ideas? Usually someplace quiet, sometimes when something established and something new bump into each other.


How do you express an idea? Any ideas I have usually start as a scribble on a white board, have five or six words written around it and then a steady stream of conversations with a diverse range of people over coffee, beer and spirits until it morphs and grows a justification that will allow it a life or death of its own making.

Some people have great difficulty with this part of the process. They are shy, unsure and reluctant to share the notion. Some are worried they will lose control of the idea – have it stolen -. Some think the idea is too small and not worth talking about.

Nurturing innovation starts long before development, it starts in expecting people to talk about novelty and process improvement on a day to day basis. Some people are naturally more communicative than others. Hands up all the extroverts, – it is the others I’m concerned about. Nudging our introverts towards socializing their thoughts is important, they are half of the population and sometimes the deepest thinkers. Skilled practitioners seem to handle this phase all by themselves, they converse, push, nudge and influence until the idea is either supported or shelved, usually for another. The challenge is to get everyone into the habit of trying to change their world by aspiring to have their pet idea implemented. An innovation is useful to someone, even if it is only one person.


The effects on staff morale should not be underestimated. People who are bought into change in their day to day working lives, who have a sense of ownership in that change that makes them glow with positive attitude, are the colleagues we want.
We have a star chamber where ideas are matched with resources (limited) and implementation projects discussed. This is where the filtering begins, having your idea put in cold storage is not pleasant and can be discouraging, but it must be explained that it is a necessary part of the process. This is I think the right problem to have, too many good ideas to implement.

Management Sponsorship

This process should be managed like any other departmental or group initiative, it requires senior management sponsorship, funding, rewards, recognition and occasional rejuvenation. It should fit with the company patent application process, rewards and incentive programs.

Innovation itself may not be an agenda item, but the process of nurturing a culture of innovation should appear on agenda at every level.

February 25, 2011

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Companies and Innovation

The world is changing, some say more rapidly than before ** 4000 books a day ** ref 1 this implies that our ever expanding horizons gives us ever more opportunity to innovate. If we could visualise the effects of sharing science in an “Age of Reason”, from the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 to the present day what would it look like? Exponential!

Some definitions ref 2

Innovation is the creative use of what exists or what is known, to create something new and different: Introduction of something new; a new idea, device or method; New idea applied, something substantially different, positive implications; Advanced or ahead of the times.

Innovation Paradox: If it is truly and substantially new then by definition it must carry with it uncertainty and ambiguity.

Certain, Easy – I don’t think so

Along the way there have been some great stories, both successes and set-backs, not all ideas make it, some are born before their time. It is their lot to lie dormant or stumble from application to application until the right circumstances come along.

I often think of George Boole ref 3 whom I stumbled across some years ago in UCC. He was born in Lincoln in 1815, died in Co Cork in 1864, and gave us the mathematical foundation of computer science. He was a contemporary of Charles Babbage FRS (1791-1871) whose inference engine was completed posthumously. Boole died at the age of 49 leaving behind a calculus that was to lie waiting for Volta’s battery in 1800, and until the 1880’s for distributed power and then until 1948 for the US Army to build ENIAC. Who could have guessed?

In more recent times we can look into the history of PARC to see examples of the difficult road that ideas take on the road to innovation. Xerox has been criticized for failing to commercialize PARC’s innovations. I remember the Star with its icon-driven GUI back in 1988 when I worked at Xerox. It was the Mac before the Mac . The same technology was successfully spun out as a company and later sold to IBM. I also remember Interpress which was Xerox’s page description language, successfully implemented in their large printers, who needed another one called Postscript? Innovations are easy to spot with hind-sight, not so easy in the midst of the every-day. Sometimes an idea is in the wrong place or just too early for its time.

Organisational Myopia

People in the science and development game tend to think that when their “stuff” is done the project is “good to go”. Yet if you look at software companies you find that development resources account for about 50% of the staff. The other half comprise of departments including Human Resources, Legal, Marketing, Sales and Support. The mechanism to bring a product or service to market (allowing it to impact society) depends on all these groups.

Look at the course of a Ph.D. , the publications tend to appear two to three years into the research. Companies work on a quarterly financial reporting cycle, there is an order of magnitude disjoint in their respective reporting cycles. This naturally leads to a “constructive” tension between the two worlds. Yet without each other, scientific ideas would never turn into innovation and commercial products would atrophy.

Adoption Styles

Companies adopt ideas/innovations at various stages. Some do the science and work the idea all the way to a product. The pharmaceutical industry is a good example. Some larger companies buy up adolescent companies who have young, innovative products but few customers and a small sales organization. Other means of acquiring ideas and budding innovations are licenses, patents and partnerships. Some companies adopt multiple strategies.


I am often asked to express research in terms of value to the organisation. Not an easy question to answer. How could one estimate the value in Postscript or in a GUI in 1988? Yes, it is much easier thirty years later, in terms of billions.

I break the cost and opportunity into three elements: First, what would it cost to employ a consultant to develop and guide our staff through the new knowledge to a process. Second, what savings have been gained in the use of the process. Third, what new opportunities have been opened up by learning the science rather than relying on the consultant. I would accrue these figures annually.


Fortunately, big companies play both games, they research and publish. Companies also purchase technology through licenses and acquisition. They guard core IP very closely, but can be quite open in areas not considered central to their development plans, where publication is a defensive strategy. This allows industry to participate in the research endeavor and act as a change agent though their commercial entity.

ref 1 Thanks to Thad McIlroy
ref 2 Thanks to Greg Oxton of CSI who introduced me to the idea-innovation paradigm.
ref 3 Thanks to Wikipedia for historical details.

February 11, 2011

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Finding Quiet Time

The conference has closed, my mind is packed with notions as I rush for the taxi to the airport. Why do we do it? It seems so efficient at the time to book a flight to sweep us back to normality as soon as possible. Share a taxi, good idea. Relax and chat about the conference, Oh yes that’s a thought! Did you do that? Um clever!

Too soon the airport, pay the man, stuff the receipt away. Now SECURITY, soul-less queuing for the same pointless search. Time bleeds away. Fortunately my fellow conference delegate joins me in the queue, we continue our conversation. Through at last, ignore the shops, get a coffee and sit down for a think. My new friend has wandered off to the shops and his boarding gate.

Flying used to be straight-forward; obtain a ticket, walk through the airport, and stroll onto the plane. Travel was efficient, comfortable, flexible, even caring. We all know what happened; now it’s a struggle.

Language technology is still at the struggle stage. There are translation services available to the internet generation. Translation services fall into three categories; gisted and free, commercial and fit for purpose or traditional and expensive. The conference heralded new technologies; SMT was breaking out from the labs and finding its way into new niche translation companies. Narrow domain SMT engines were sprouting up like spring flowers. Great to see, like the birth of air transport, MT was diversifying into commerce. True it is held together with wire and canvas but it was on its way.

Finally, the flight is called, another queue, further inspection, then, airborne. People around me comment on their flight in terms of delays and leg-room. I look at the engines, and imagine all the working parts; science and technology folded to make it fly, safely. We in MT have a long way to go before our customers comment only on convenience and not effectiveness. Between science and service, we have technology. This is our space to fill. We have to know the science and anticipate the use cases, then we can create the technology. I’m often asked what use is this? Why do you research that? We need our customers and our critics to keep us honest and properly aligned. Without a vision of the application, there is little direction for innovation. Good ideas on their knees looking for a use-case are a sad sight and even sadder is a science scrambling for a role in the world. The excitement of innovation is bridging that gap; bridging the knowledge and the need, the science and the service.

To most people technology sounds cold and impersonal, but it really people who drive development, convert insight into action, produce the data, design the tools and build the technology. Science, technology and service rest on people, directed, motivated and supported with appropriate resource.

Coming in to land, back to the everyday. Don’t let the necessary mundane smother your flickering flame of innovation . We have an opportunity to provide the world with automated translation in a myriad of applications. Who knows where it will lead? It can’t be a bad place if people can understand each other better. From the rich West to the impoverished Rest, we can provide the means to communicate. It deserves our attention. It needs our contributions.

Things to do:

Optimise MT for internal customer needs …….

Contribute to Translators Without Borders
Work with Rosetta
Brainstorm those use cases …….

Build those applications …….

Reflection. It has only been a few hours since we climbed into the taxi. I must get more quiet time, and get off the treadmill.

January 28, 2011

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