Adam Stoten, Head of Technology Transfer, Life Sciences at Isis Innovation and member of PraxisUnico Conference Committee (pictured) reports on a talk delivered by Dr David Bott, Principal Fellow, Warwick Manufacturing Group.
Sometimes it is good to go back to basics. In the conference’s opening plenary David Bott challenged some fundamental assumptions about how linear the relationship is between the type of world class science for which the UK is rightly applauded and the derivation of innovative products and services from such innovation – an area where he believes the evidence for our world class standing is perhaps less compelling. (For an interesting counterpoint to this view, see the report from Professor Graeme Reid's talk).
David drew on his own experience in both large and small companies to provide examples of how the brave new world of a scientific breakthrough – whether the discovery of conducting polymers or the wonder properties of spider silk – generally did not translate in straightforward terms to massive economic return. When filtered through the lens of commercial reality, especially in terms of scalability of manufacture, such discoveries typically spend longer than anyone imagines in the innovation wilderness, before eventually finding economically viable applications in a particular niche or two.
David’s hypothesis was that the concept of universities pushing their cutting edge scientific discoveries into the open arms of industry and expecting short term runaway commercial success is, in the majority of cases, unrealistic. This has been exacerbated by the demise of the “corporate laboratory” which was able to work with university researchers on a longer term basis – and by doing so better align the commercial needs with the scientific solutions being offered.
An increasing focus on short term gains has led to the extinction of these laboratories and while much is made of the importance of open innovation and interaction with universities, the corporate structures to truly optimise the seamless progression of scientific leaps into commercial gains are arguably sub-optimal.
The take-home message – universities might be better focussing on industry sector rather than by discipline, such that there is a focus on solutions that span multiple scientific disciplines, which could have profound implications for how research is organised in our top research institutions. A copy of David Bott's presentation is available at: http://www.praxisunico.org.uk/resources/presentations.asp