Rethinking Science and Technology enabled innovation

Popular enthusiasm for commercializing science and technology has not been matched by a clear understanding of the structures, processes and mechanisms required to do this: there are many gaps between ‘conventional wisdom’ and the reality of how this transformation actually works.

This gap is serious because it affects not just the economy but especially those involved in generating ideas and turning them into viable products and services, and those who provide funding for the process. And inevitably, given the enormous potential impact of commercial value creation, commercialization is also subject to political and social bias where ideological narratives often win out against real evidence.

Many academics and commentators have written a great deal about entrepreneurship and innovation, but surprisingly little systematic work has been done on the commercialization of science and technology based ideas and intellectual property.

This problem is made worse because what has been published is generally based on a few well-chosen case studies, which tend to focus on ‘outlier’ firms not necessarily representative of the majority of firms. In the absence of a data based on solid evidence these publications usually create simple grid-based generalisations which can be used to offer ‘strategic’ advice to senior executives, mostly in large firms.

There are two good explanations for this gap: the difficulty in understanding the inherently non-linear and complex commercialization process influenced by many variables which affect the outcome; and ideological narratives based on economic orthodoxy which have encouraged the supposed ability to separate idea generation from its exploitation.

At a practical level this debate is reflected in several, quite different, ways, ranging from the technology transfer industry which has grown dramatically over the last 20 years and ‘reality television’ shows where entrepreneurs compete for financial investment from a small number of successful (and presumably ‘sagacious’) business people.

There has been little rigorous research and analysis on new value creation that followed Schumpeter’s seminal work “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, published way back in 1947. There are some exceptions to this, in particular, the attempts to explore the key drivers for transformation in geographic innovation clusters on the East and West Coasts of the US centred in MIT and Silicon Valley, and several European clusters such as Cambridge, and Sophia-Antipolis.

While these publications provide useful insights, they lack a generalised body of knowledge, insights based on a well-defined methodology, and a rigorous data set essential to support practical decision making.

This gap needs to be addressed urgently now: the global debate on how ideas are generated, funded, and turned into useful outputs, and how the benefits of this are distributed, in societal and global terms, needs these insights urgently!