How do you Deliver Innovation in a Research Environment?

Research at Lund University is world-class. Research is undertaken in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, automatic control, wireless communication, logistics, ecology and cognitive science.

The Swedish system (Linnépengar, The Swedish Research Council, Vinnova etc…) that “funds the research” has invested money in brilliant research at Lund University.

Researchers are assessed and the funding they receive is based on the number of articles they have published and lectures given.

In this environment, my colleagues and I aim to help researchers commercialise their research. How can this be done in a professional manner?

The first step is old-fashioned, honest market research, i.e. find a market.

Define your market: “Lund University researchers”

Unless you have infinite resources available, limit your market to “vigorous research environments with the potential to deliver innovation through research”. Vigorous research environments can be defined quickly. Determine which research groups have received Linné funding for example, have performed well in evaluations etc. Which areas of research can you develop marketable innovations from (products, licenses, services)? Biotechnology and technology are the easiest; but can innovations emerge from management research, cognitive science and ecology research? Most probably, yes.

Most importantly, that researchers are keen to move their research forward, after it has been published. “It takes two to tango”.

Most importantly, that researchers are keen to move their research forward, after it has been published. “It takes two to tango”.

Assume that we have found researchers who are looking to take their research forward to an innovation
that can be commercialised. What problems might arise along the way? Let us use a fictitious example.

Who will pay for the first verification?

You need funding to verify research at a very early stage. Can the research findings be patented? Where is the market? What does the eco system look like? Perform an early verification of the technology. Test it on a larger scale, see if there are any secondary effects etc. It is tough to find funding for this. The public system has a large responsibility and major role to play here. There is a gap between what the research world is doing and when this becomes of interest to the enterprise sector.

Where do we find an entrepreneur to take the idea forward?

Where do we find an entrepreneur who is able to develop the concept into a marketable product?

We have now done our fundamental homework. We have applied for a patent, we have an initial market concept. We are starting to gain an understanding of what resources will be required to develop a marketable product. We know how long this should take. All these estimates are usually wrong, but they do provide something to work with and a (false) sense of security that you are in control. It is now that the fun starts. Where do we find an entrepreneur who is able to develop the concept into a marketable product? If we find the right person, it might work, if we find the wrong person it will definitely not work.  Sometimes the researcher is the right person, but more often than not, he or she is not interested in this side of things, and would prefer to continue doing what they do best, i.e. research. The researcher is always involved, but not in the role of entrepreneur.

Where do we find the funding for the first risk-filled year of hard work (that in 50 % of cases ends with the project being abandoned)?

Finding smart capital is probably one of the most difficult tasks of all.

We now have an innovation and an entrepreneur who will often take the project forward in the form of a company. Where do we find the venture capital to pursue the concept further? Such funding has to come from the tough and economic climate sensitive venture capital market. The university system cannot and should not provide direct support at this stage. We can help with marketing and developing networks of business angels. In certain cases we can also accumulate venture capital with the University as the driving partner, this has been done at LU Biotechnology for example. But at this stage only a really smart business concept will mean it succeeds. Finding smart capital is probably one of the most difficult tasks of all. It is usually a case of finding a business angel who has both the funds and the contacts in the market you are going to work in.

Conclusion: recipe for success

The fundamental ingredient in this recipe is always world-class research. But to convert this into a commercially successful innovation you need to add the following types of ingredient:

  • A researcher who wants to commercialise his/her ideas
  • Verification funding at an early stage
  • An understanding of the market, customer benefits, the eco system
  • An entrepreneur who does not give up
  • Time – it always takes longer than you think
  • Access to capital, preferably smart capital
  • Unbounded persistence

Personal reflections

25 years experience in the telecom industry, most recently as head of technology and research at Sony-Ericsson has taught me that there are many similarities between industry and university environments.  We all work with uncertainties. All of us are also working at the forefront of technology. We want to be first. But there is a difference. The private sector needs to earn money. It is these similarities and differences that make it vital that today’s universities have a professional technology transfer-organisation that understands both where the researcher is coming from and how the land lies in the private sector.

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