Innovation as King Is Dead. The Day of the Innovator Has Arrived

5/18/11

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R&D with business units and minimizing longer-term R&D began. During this time, many companies helped researchers gain a better sense of market need, and helped them to be part of business teams. Project teams often incorporated market expertise, R&D, manufacturing, and finance—as the concept of cross-functional teams as a means for rapid commercialization took hold and in the book Third Generation R&D and articles such as “Intrapreneurship in R&D” and “Why Not Every Customer Should Be King” published in Research Technology Management (RTM) looked at ways to optimize a structure, and in the RTM article “Improving the R&D Decision Making Process”, the “best” companies were cited for excellence in aligning R&D with corporate strategy, technology commercialization, and measuring effectiveness.

But if a little was good in the way of this change, a lot might be better. By the beginning of the 21st century, wholesale realignments of R&D into businesses—coupled with budget cuts as a quick solution to realigning balance sheets—saw R&D as an easy target, and companies began the trend of downsizing research capabilities or transforming a subset of skilled forward-thinking scientists and engineers into primarily technical service or manufacturing support groups. The result was fewer new products coming to market to sustain corporate growth, but as this happened over more than quarterly reporting horizons, the decline was less noticeable—but inexorable.

With little to no R&D providing products from their own labs, companies began to look to Open Innovation and acquisitions—interactions with universities and new startups—as their seed corn for the future. However if the only change is the location of the research and if the innovator is still viewed as a cost item that is easily cut—not provided with information of market need and the vocabulary of business and not being engaged as a full partner at the table along with the commercial team—then we are not changing the paradigm that got us into the problem in the first place.

So how do we break this cycle and do the heavier lift required to create startups based on scientific innovations—companies where the innovators and their team are respected and supported to take their ideas and move them forward as key members of the business team? Here are three ways to start the process of transforming the much touted Valley of Death into what it truly is: a Time of Brilliance, for innovators and their scientific innovations to build value and solve problems.

Build binocular vision. Creating a scientific innovation that can lead to a commercial outcome and broad impact requires the innovator to have both the lens of the market as well as a lens of science—in short, binocular vision. By ensuring scientists and engineers have direct access to market info and experts, you can ensure the scientific solution is more than an invention and is an innovation that answers a market need.

Don’t think you know what scientists want. Often the implicit or even explicit attitude from the business community is that a scientist wants to simply do the science and get the result. The corollary to this can then become “this is all they really want to do anyway, we’ll protect them and let them just be in the lab. We’ll let the business people build the business and create the innovation.” Remember, the more knowledgeable we all are, the more rapidly we can all help solve problems. We are integrated humans with integrated brains, and the wisdom of crowds clearly shows that informed people combined with broad diversity of thought, brought together to knowledgably solve a problem, provide a better solution—and an informed scientist can get you to the best solution faster.

Avoid the Tower of Babel. Remember any time in your life that even knowing one word of a foreign language helped you? Even if all you could say was please or thank you, it was enough to overcome a barrier? Learning business or science is like learning a new language. Yet if all each of us learns is one language—that of the market or science—and not even a few words of the other language, then our ability to communicate can become insular and restricted. No one is expecting a marketing expert to become a Ph.D. in nuclear physics or an engineer to become a PR expert overnight—but knowing and respecting each other’s vocabulary can go a long way.

Judith C. Giordan is board chairman for VentureWell, a university venture advisor and funder, which she leads with Joseph Steig. She is a former Fortune 100 exec and also serves as Senior Advisor to the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Follow @

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  • http://www.whobrain.com William Disman

    Judith and Joseph,

    This post was very inspiring, I myself am a startup based on scientific innovation. As an Applied Mathematician and young CEO my startup harnesses the energy of scientists to transform current best practices in the online advertisement field. We are based out of San Diego, and currently in California we have Bill SB 242 that aims to protect consumers against internet companies using your personal data without your consent. Our science bets that if we as consumers are not comfortable with advertisers knowing our personal data, the field of artificial intelligence will be completely trumped before it even began.

    It is clear to me that scientists drive innovation, we have the skills necessary to create technology, what is not clear to me is how I can approach a VC as a scientist. When I attempt to “crack the deal” using science, I can watch the eyes of VC’s glaze over and become curious why I approached them if I just want to talk science. Yet when I discuss the financial implications I can motivate them to help me to build the business. There is a very delicate balance that occurs in the business of science, and one must inspire innovation on both the business end and within the science. You have clearly pointed out issues resulting from imbalance, and I couldn’t agree with you more: They day of the innovator has arrived.

  • http://www.upliftinc.org/inventech.html Ida Byrd-Hill

    Before innovation comes invention. The innovation cycle would move a lot faster if young people in middle and high school were grounded in the invention process. When they arrive on college campuses their minds would be wired for innovation. I am in the midst of a charter school start-up named INVENTech Academy. Our goal is to create interdisciplinary curriculum based on case studies that forces young people to think about inventions and hence innovation.

  • http://www.powerpatterns.com Sarah Miller Caldicott

    Fascinating view of “what’s needed” to accelerate innovation in the US today. There’s no question that science and R&D remain crucial…what’s shifted, as you note, is the infrastructure into which these resources must “plug in.”

    Scientists are not trained to see through to the end user, to the marketplace. We need to release the stigma that still surrounds the commercialization of research…MIT has had great success with this.

    As a great grandniece of Thomas Edison, one key finding of my research into Edison’s methods reveals that he revelled in the prospect of being able to practically apply his research endeavors to the betterment of humankind. The inventions, industries, and patents he developed all testify to this. I think even more than a binocular view, Edison had a “360 degree” view of the spectrum running from research to commercial success. We need to develop this in our students and scientific community today!

  • http://jgiordan.com Judy

    Thanks for your comments! The opportunity of finding ways to create a better vocabulary for all to be able to hear and understand what the other is saying is at the heart of the human enterprise – no matter what the topic. And rewarding BOTH scientists who can and want to learn the language of business as well as business people who respect science and its language provides for a two way bridge.

    Data show that young children are very facile at learning all sorts of languages…so analogously, the earlier any of us can learn another vocabulary, the more easily we incorporate it into our so-called “normal patterns” of speech.

    IMAGINE the power of people fluent in both science and business who can help the planet….gee, starts sounding like the great inventors of any generation – as we have so wonderfully been reminded by the recollection of Thomas Edison! And now followed by those scientists starting businesses today and training young people for tomorrow – as mentioned in the other posts!

    Thank you!The planet needs your help!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/marcusgay Marcus Oliver Gay

    Judy: Fantastic article and I agree wholeheartedly with your key points as echoed by other reader comments. Over the past 10 years, I have worn a number of ‘hats’; from my time as a bench chemist in a purely academic environment, that of an R&D scientists in an industrial biotech company, to that of Business Development Manager within the exciting field of BioEnergy. At present, I have the fantastic opportunity to work with a leading publisher of scientific information as we develop a tool that strives to help with the language barrier and lack of binocular vision that is discussed here.

    I propose that Information + Imagination = Innovation. Today, as Scientists and Engineers, we are not limited by our imagination. Neither are we limited by access to information. Rather, we are constrained by our ability to effectively navigate the abundance of information available. The challenge is on our ability to efficiently identify and effectively leverage the valuable pieces of information for the problems we face.

    Our approach is to arm Scientists and Engineers with a tool that gives access to a comprehensive set of information ranging from scientific and technical information, industrial information, and ultimately market and regulatory information. Armed with reliable INFORMATION early in the R&D process we can ensure that the IMAGINATION of our scientific resources will lead to INNOVATION that will build our economy and create a sustainable future.

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