Why research and innovation are doomed to understand each other

I am used to writing about very tangible, very concrete topics. But for some time now I have been reflecting on what is innovation, what is research, and why funding entities insist on making a big difference between the two. When in fact they are condemned to understand each other, to go hand in hand, and to work together if we really want to advance in all fields of knowledge.

Let’s start at the beginning with some basic concepts through this fantastic video.

I would be satisfied with just these six minutes of video. But let’s delve a little deeper into these definitions and, above all, into the term “innovation”. As a conceptual summary we can highlight the following:

RESEARCH

Original and planned inquiry to obtain new knowledge and superior understanding in the scientific and technological field.

It provides answers to the following questions that the company may ask itself: What does it know, what does it need to know, what does it need to know?

Main results: Publications/Papers.

DEVELOPMENT

Application of research to obtain drawings, schematic or design, non-marketable prototype or pilot plant.

Main results: Prototypes/Pilot Plants.

INNOVATION

Obtaining new products and processes or improvements to existing ones. Includes R&D, industrial design, industrial equipment and engineering, manufacturing start-up and technology acquisition. (Different definitions for different uses).

Main outputs: Services/Applications.

Research and technological development are “old acquaintances” and have been present in our daily lives for centuries. But the same cannot be said of innovation, which has become a hot topic in our vocabulary in recent decades. And through my work, I have come to realize that many people do not know what innovation is, or understand it in the wrong way. I am going to try to clarify it a little more, although we have already been introducing information throughout this entry in relation to what innovation implies.

  • Product or service innovation

    • Significant changes are made to a product or service to improve its functionalities or results.
    • An example could be the different versions of the same smartphone.
    • It will depend a lot on the corporate culture, and whether resources are dedicated to internal innovation.

  • Process innovation

    • The focus is on the implementation of new processes or the improvement of current ones, such as manufacturing, distribution, production, logistics, purchasing, etc.
    • The aim is to increase and improve the efficiency of the company’s resources and effectiveness, as well as to reduce costs.
    • A clear example of this innovation is the company IKEA, which has achieved a much higher degree of cost optimization in its processes than the rest of its competitors.

  • Marketing innovation

    • New marketing methods are developed, including improvements in product design or packaging, pricing, distribution and promotion.
    • It seeks to better meet the needs of consumers, to open new markets or to position a company’s product in a new way in order to increase sales.
    • We can follow the example of IKEA and their latest campaign in favor of sustainability, or the one they did back in the day about enjoying breakfast or lunch while trying out a bed.

  • Organizational innovation

    • New methods and organizational designs are created, whether in company practices, workplace organization or external relations.
    • The main objective is to improve the organizational culture, increasing, as a result, the productivity and competitiveness of human resources.

  • Technological innovation

    • Technological innovation is based on the results of new technological developments, new combinations of existing technologies or the use of other knowledge acquired by the establishment.
    • Any of the four innovations defined above can be qualified as technological if it complies with the above premise.
    • In most public (and also private) financing of R&D&I, when they speak of “innovation” they refer to technological innovation.

As you have already realized, research and innovation are different and complementary things: While research is applying scientific methodology to acquire knowledge about the object of our professional practice and understand it more deeply, innovation is applying the acquired knowledge for the improvement of professional processes/services.

Let’s see it with a practical example to understand the true nature of this synergy.

  • The researcher

  • The researcher, starting from a hypothesis, plans an experimental strategy based on scientific methodology and aimed at proving or disproving his hypothesis. This experimentation will yield new knowledge on the subject under study and part of this new knowledge may have application in a specific field.

    Let’s take a real example from the field of health. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was a 19th-century German physicist who, in 1895, while studying the external effects of applying an electric discharge to a vacuum tube, noticed that there was a fluorescence coming through the cardboard covering the tube. He used photographic plates to demonstrate that objects were more or less transparent to that radiation and thus discovered X-rays. He made the first human X-ray using his wife’s hand. He called them “incognita rays”, or “X-rays” because he did not know what they were, only that they were generated by cathode rays hitting certain materials.

  • The innovator

  • The innovator extracts applicable knowledge derived from research and adapts it to the specific application system, which usually requires some modification and teamwork.

    Continuing with the previous example, we have the case of Antoine Béclère. He was a French infectious disease physician, virologist and immunologist, who was interested in improving the diagnosis of tuberculosis.

    A little less than a month after the publication of the discovery of X-rays by Röntgen (work published on December 28, 1895), during the first radioscopy session, carried out with his assistants Drs. Oudin and Barthelemy on January 20, 1896, the possible applications of X-rays in medicine were clearly revealed. During the summer of 1896, Antoine Béclère and his team created the first X-ray device for the diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis.

My opinion: neither with you nor without you…

I think it is clear that research and innovation are two sides of the same coin. And that is precisely why they often turn their backs on each other, deliberately trying to omit each other. And why does this happen? I have my own theory, which I am going to explain below, but I would like to point out that it is based solely and exclusively on the experience of more than a decade of work in this sector. Your opinion on this matter interests me, so I will be very grateful if you leave me a comment on whether you are for or against what I am going to explain now.

Researchers, in general, tend to consider themselves the intellectual elite, they are purists in everything they do, and much of science can be understood as what we consider basic science. That is, with no direct application in the near future. And this is wonderful as we have seen in the case of our X-Ray friend. If it were not for that hunger for knowledge, that hunger for new knowledge, and for exploring limits that no one dares to reach, we would not be where we are. All this is thanks to the researchers who, with their patience, with the application of the scientific method, and with the calmness of being willing to devote a lifetime to know “everything” about something, make us advance in all fields of knowledge. But as we have seen with the example of Antoine and Wilhem, wanting to know everything is not enough. Because where the true value of what for me is the complete researcher lies is in the humility of recognizing that you have discovered something that you do not know how to apply. And that you need help. This is where we clash with egos.

What is more important than knowledge per se? In the more theoretical academic environment, collaborating with a company or a technology center to “apply” that knowledge is little more than heresy. We still think that companies “only want to make money with our ideas” (correct, but you, researcher, can also make money with your ideas if you take care to protect your knowledge well). We still think that research and innovation times are not compatible (right, the real world usually goes much faster than research knowledge). And until we get these prejudices out of our heads and build bridges between academia and business in a solid way, we will have to keep waiting for the Antoine of the moment to meet his particular Wilhem to be able to meet the needs of the future society.

Lately, the following synonym has been coming to my mind more and more: innovator = smoke-seller. As we have already mentioned, in the last decades the entrepreneurial lifestyle has become fashionable: be your own boss, work with a mojito in your hand from a paradisiacal beach, earn millions of dollars comfortably while you sleep. Ladies and gentlemen, ALL THIS ARE LIES. I’m sorry to be the one who has to come and remove the blindfold from your eyes, but we must not confuse true innovation with having a golden beak. That is what many people who consider themselves “innovators” think is necessary to succeed: knowing how to sell yourself, and knowing how to sell your idea. Without having absolutely nothing behind it but words. You will be sick and tired of hearing (as I am) words like “pivot”, “grease”, “scale”, “ecosystem”, “hub”, “pitching” and countless other terms. Be careful!

I am an entrepreneur, and I have many people around me who are also entrepreneurs. And you work hard, and you suffer a lot. And many times you earn very little or even lose. But being an entrepreneur does not mean that you are in an innovative environment. Throughout this post, I have tried to make clear what we mean when we talk about innovation, and it has nothing to do with “crazy ideas”. Innovation is done in universities, in SMEs, in technology centers, in multinationals…and also from time to time, through individual entrepreneurial actions. Unfortunately, this mixture of terms and concepts is often distorting the true disruptive innovations, and there are people who think that “anything goes” if I use the right words, the ones that are in fashion. You don’t know how many people I have come across who promise you that, without any knowledge in banking, you can get rich with investments in bitcoin, or in e-commerce, or in digital marketing, and all this using only 2 or 3 hours a day of your time. Seriously, this does a lot of damage, especially because we are going through very hard times where people have lost their jobs and desperately rush into anything, even risking their personal assets.

Do not be fooled, true innovations require a brutal knowledge of the sector in question, an economic investment sometimes very important, and a human team with a special talent for the vision of future markets. In addition to solid alliances between all levels of the R&D&I value chain: those bridges I was talking about before between academia and industry are bridges back and forth. Let’s strengthen these pillars, which are the only ones that have proven to be solid enough to materialize knowledge into real solutions applied to society.

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