The Innovation Pipeline: Research to Market
Image: Scharferle from Pixabay
This article is pulled from a talk I gave at the UAE Ministry of Education Majlis at World Expo 2020, Dubai in March 2022 (years later if you are reading this, the discrepancy of years (2020-2022) is because of the pandemic)!
One of the innovation and policy challenges with taking research to market is that cultivating the pipeline needs constant and diversified support and, of course, patience. There are shortcuts, but in the long term, the system crumbles if there is not enough sustained support for its foundation - basic research. The starting point to begin understanding the challenges of the research-market pipeline is to begin by understanding what basic research is.
There are three types of research: basic, applied, and commercial.
Basic Research: The Foundation
Basic Research is often done for the pure love of science. It is curiosity-driven, about new knowledge and, when being conducted, usually has no perspective of “can it be applied”. This is becoming a rarity nowadays as it needs a “safe space”, “Academic freedom”, and culture of “support and critical thinking”. Remember that peer review as a concept was not a numbers game in the 1800s, which we are embracing today in university rankings (see Figure 1)! So while new knowledge is derived from journals - it is really in many cases a business model and it gets gamified if not careful! How you use this is more important than the visible metrics. For example in AI research, since so much focus is now on commercialization, there is a drying up of basic research, in case it may kill patentability.
Figure 1: The Gamification of Peer Review and Academic Time Spent
Top-tier universities regularly fund their internal research and get research funding from outside. Which comes first? In my viewpoint, (1) funding internally, (2) having government sources of funding, and (3) last getting funding from industry. Internal funding can act as a seed fund, but the critical question is what amount is enough. This decision is a function of academic roles (teaching, administration, outreach versus research), academic support (research students, infrastructure, and access to research resources), and culture. If confused about how much to spend, look at the World University Ranking (see Figure 2), 60+% of the weightage comes from research, so the real question is if the institution is spending 50+% of the budget on research. No? Then it probably is a teaching institution with a little focus on research. On the other hand, if a research center is embedded in the institution, it will follow the same budgeting logic, and the researchers attached will spend most of their time on research.
Figure 2: 60% of rankings come from Research
How is research being valued? Often by peers. With journal research, we look at reviewer anonymity. In the early days, there were reviews by communities of peers, and they regularly met to discuss their projects. Research is valued by various methods: citations, journal quality, keynote presentations, published books (not self-funded), awards, etc. Marie Curie, the only person in the world with two Nobel Prizes in two different science fields, had not completed her Ph.D. when she got the first Nobel prize. I would say the work she did is still significant today as it was when she was chosen for the award!!!
Academic institutions and traditional research centers are sadly shifting focus from Basic Research to Applied and Commercial Research (see Figure 3). They have become teaching heavy, more administrative, and regulated; at times, this has killed the spirit required for basic research. Yet, basic research is needed though it is not easy to fund from the industry (the industry rarely has the patience to wait for results). Governments that support basic research will also reap the benefits of applied research. For example, many of the inventions we see in mobile tech, space, health, and life sciences were pioneered by government funding. In the USA, for example, organizations like DARPA, National Science Foundation (NSF), and NASA have had a mission-oriented drive when thinking of research and development. But this type of thinking needs to be constantly (innovatively) reviewed, or you will, unfortunately, run into roadblocks. For example, government administrative and security criteria and protocols at one time almost paralyzed NASA to the point that the space agenda (which they pioneered) has been overtaken by the private sector and other countries. Mariana Mazzucato has argued the role government play in R&D very brilliantly in her books.
Figure 3: The Sad Shift from Basic Research to Applied Research and the Players
Applied Research: The pathway
Applied Research is about testing theories or basic research premises. It looks at the feasibility of basic research. It often is related to real-world contexts. I love the example of Abbas Ibn Firnas, the first recorded man many to test flight (long before the Wright brothers). The basic maths in terms of equations would tell you if it would work. Abbas Ibn Firnas would need to calculate the type of vehicle that would test the maths and work on parameters or boundary conditions before he could see if he could fly.
He was inspired by an event he saw as a child when someone glided off a tower. Unfortunately, for Abbas Ibn Firnas, when he tried to fly, he has badly hurt on his first attempt. Here is something important for policymakers. Applied research will always come with risks. It is about testing the boundaries of what is feasible, what are the safety limits, and what are the boundaries of the unknown.
What do I mean about the boundaries of the unknown? Many of our new technologies have resulted in some negative and avoidable impacts (environmental, health, safety, and societal). So applied research is an opportunity to test the feasibility and explore the positive and negative effects (I have another talk on this topic). I love reading those journal papers where the authors discuss ethical considerations and what did not work in their scientific inquiry. This is something we need to encourage.
Commercial Research: The economies of it all
Commercial research is the next stage in the research pipeline. It is about market adaptation, creating a production process, and commercialization (will people buy it at the price I can afford). This requires a different type of applied research.
The market is a collection of buyers and sellers. Products may have a real-world application but may not be affordable, hence not succeed. In some cases, the new product or service may have a business model that is not sustainable (we are seeing this with the tech and crypto market crash in the USA). Or sometimes, the product is not easily scalable. For example, the first covid vaccines needed cold chain logistics that were unavailable at the time of production, which delayed its market accessibility.
Fixing the Pipeline
Each country is different as it has a diverse mix of talent, commercial ventures interested in its research, and available market. A country’s uniqueness is one reason I think we need to be cautious with rankings. It may be like comparing oranges with rice, fish, or spinach. All are important to eat but play different roles in the body.
All three elements are essential: talent, industries that embed new tech, and the available market. Countries that do well have created competitive clusters and have basic and applied research centers around these research focus areas. For more on competitive clusters and city culture, you could read my chapter (Chapter 8) in the Handbook of Artificial Intelligence And Robotic Process Automation here.
Here are questions that need to be asked.
1. Where does the country want to excel? How much money will it put into the research (basic, applied, and commercial), and what are its planned timelines? To answer these questions, you need strategic foresight. Unfortunately, academia has been slow to change – not because they do not want to, but because the regulatory oversight and rankings make nimbleness difficult. If we want a competitive advantage, we need to invest in an area that the whole world will be clamoring to have, but we also need the industries that will commercialize this and grow, scale and hence be a source of exports.
2. What is access to talent, and how does the talent produce research relevant to the context? Basic and applied researchers (often doctorate holders) need a pipeline of research students. Great institutions pay these students, and these students work with basic researchers for 3-5 years.
3. What is the culture allowing talent to flourish? I cannot stress the importance of culture, which is why tenure has historically been a critical milestone for great researchers to make their institutions their academic home.
4. What is the access to constant streams of research funding (within the organization, at the state level, and others)? What are the periodic grants, what are the sizes of these grants, and are they multi-disciplinary?
5. What is the commitment to multi-year research funding from the commercial sector? This can also be observed by the number of R&D centers based in the country, what is their focus, and how many academic and research institutions are they attached to?
6. What are the proportions of basic reach, applied research, and commercial research? How are these metrics being calculated, and what are the assumptions being made?
7. What is the transfer of knowledge (basic and applied research via education, training, books, journals, keynote talks, patents, etc.)?
For More: www.melodena.com
There is an interesting case study I discuss in class on nanotechnology - contact me if you would like to hear more.
We have developed a toolkit on to help countries build competitive clusters when they do not have access to granular data: Available here: Competitive Industry Clusters Analysis: A Strategy Development Toolkit
Want to understand problem solving? Some videos on possible types of training programs are available on my YouTube channel: here
Interested in tech Ethics? You would love our Metaverse & its Governance paper! Here