Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Connecting Business Needs with Basic Science

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Connecting Business Needs with Basic Science

Article excerpt

Two separate but simultaneous transformations--one in science, one in business--affect our world and our fortunes today. I believe these ongoing shifts, largely underway by 1995, will irrevocably transform their respective disciplines within a decade. More important, I fully expect that where they interact, the shifts will fundamentally change how the world will operate.

While experts have liberally expounded upon these shifts in the literature of their own fields, the interaction between the fields is relatively unexplored. In fact, since the demise of the for-profit research powerhouses, this space has become almost uncharted. The corporate muscle for the technique of long-lead, basic research has atrophied for lack of an ability to directly connect it to future product sales.

But something new is happening that is driving business and science back into partnership again. New dynamics and new techniques indicate that the time is ripe to define and exploit their joint potential.

In this article I sketch out the transformations and explore the space between them. I explain how scientific understanding at the atomic scale has an increasingly vital link to commercial profit and loss, and how you can recognize the signs that your business has a need that science should be engaged to meet.

What's Changing in Business

The evolution of global markets is changing how companies must innovate. Speed--not just global scope--is what matters today. The gathering speed within markets deeply challenges conventional expertise, which values long hours and inspired trial and error as the keys to product innovation, market capture and profit growth.

Companies tend to plug away at new ideas by trial and error (empirical method) with faith in their employees' expertise, creativity and insight. This is sustaining innovation, which exploits the sunk cost in current assets and extends the momentum of current products; companies naturally stay focused on products and processes at or close to their core business.

But this faith and focus comprises a bet placed against the odds that a competitor won't gain the same or similar insights sooner--exercising patent rights and going to market with intellectual property barriers erected and with a significant market timing advantage. More dire, companies live in fear of being blindsided by disruptive innovation coming from known or unknown competition via a new product for an entirely new market that no one knew existed, or a new solution that makes current products obsolete overnight.

A company can always counter its competition by expanding facilities, investing in training and hiring additional staff. But none of these tactics address the core limitation of the empirical method. Trial and error include embedded time constraints imposed by the nature of materials, chemistry and physics of the products being developed--no matter what the industry.

Nor can such tactics counteract the tendency of all successful companies to repeat what has worked in the past. The entrepreneur's whatever-it-takes spirit of innovation is missing within corporate bureaucracy precisely because the bureaucratic machinery is so successful at churning out current product and sustaining market share over time. Stockholders don't want you to fix what isn't broken. Perturb it at your own peril!

However, the entire innovation workflow--from new idea to purchase and use--begs for an overhaul if business is to respond successfully to the increasing speed of global markets. Empirical methods must be augmented with a faster, more grounded approach that gives substance not only to sustaining innovations but also to providing a richer environment for fostering disruptive insights. This new approach must also couple with the business process of identifying the best ideas and turning them into profits.

Coming to that realization is the crux of the transformation in business: the need to engage an advanced method to overcome the friction between the speed of competitive innovation and the inherent limits of trial and error. …

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