OPINION: Isn't innovation exciting?! Well, not always
Innovation can be demanding. Especially when working outside your main field, which is the case for many researchers entering the innovation area. Eoin Galligan worked as a business developer at Aarhus University for over 10 years. Here, he explains why, in order to succeed, academic inventors need to both present a business case based on solid data and demonstrate that they understand the market’s expectations.
How do you react to innovation? Working with scientific researchers at Aarhus University on innovation cases, I’ve observed that people perceive innovation in different ways. With stakeholders such as government and funding organisations placing huge pressure on universities to create partnerships or spin-outs, understanding how innovation is managed is a ‘hot’ topic. Here, I offer an approach for scientific researchers. I hope that it helps them recognise this characteristic not only in themselves but also in the professionals who support them in innovation, such as investors, lawyers and business developers.
Leave the lab – go get feedback
Let's consider an example. University researchers are highly skilled in critical thinking within their research field. Many are renowned experts. However, innovation demands that individuals develop new skills within areas such as strategy, marketing or regulatory affairs. These areas demand a mindset, value set and vocabulary that some researchers may not already have. Imagine an inventor who wants to continue their experimental work before presenting an invention to industry. This is reasonable. In academic research, achieving the best data possible is a primary goal. However, such an approach misses a key aspect of innovation: project risk. It is certainly true that venture capital investors expect researchers to mature a technology, but they also expect innovators to take ownership of “risk”.
Postponing critical feedback from stakeholders increases risk.
Researchers must take steps to validate their assumptions on what experimental work is required. Postponing critical feedback from stakeholders increases risk. In other words, researchers need to leave the lab and speak to a range of individuals, obtaining different perspectives on risk. Key areas of feedback are defining the problem, benchmarking to technologies in the pipeline, and acquiring industry competences in the team. This allows the researcher to show the investor that they understand the market’s expectations – and feedback.
Keep cool – reflect on your limitations
Let's take a second example. While innovation demands researchers work outside their area of expertise, the same is true for innovation professionals, such as lawyers, business managers and coaches.
I’ve observed that some of these individuals don't just enjoy the process of innovation – they literally fall in love with it.
I’ve observed that some of these individuals don't just enjoy the process of innovation – they literally fall in love with it. The complexity of science and business provides stories of how their work could change the world. With this mindset, some individuals – often under pressure – struggle to reflect on the limits of their perspective and knowledge. In other words – their love of innovation stops them making rational, objective decisions.
Consider a broad range of inputs
Does this matter for university inventors? Yes. Let’s look at an example. Let’s imagine that a TTO manager (technology Transfer Office Manager, ed.) adopts a strict, legal perspective and focuses on intellectual property and legal questions. There is evidence that intellectual property and legal advice helps spin-outs to obtain financing, but we must be careful not to confuse causation with correlation. An inventor needs to consider a broad range of inputs for their spin-out company, such as a disruptive technology, experienced entrepreneurs, regulatory experience and new product development experience. A TTO manager who only focuses on legal questions runs the risk of highlighting where they lack experience.
Based on my experience, I propose that, within university innovation, there is a need for every individual to utilise critical thinking skills – especially when working outside of their key competences.
Based on my experience, I propose that, within university innovation, there is a need for every individual to utilise critical thinking skills – especially when working outside of their key competences. This demands seeking all sides of an argument, testing the soundness of claims, and evaluating the evidence provided to support them. TTO managers must seek an objective position, reflecting on the limits of their perception. Instead of just providing opinions, they must create persuasive arguments based on evidence – while highlighting their limitations. Critical thinking addresses irrationality and lifts innovation to the standards demanded by venture capital investors and the market.
Innovation can be exciting – if managed in a rational way
University innovation occupies a particular context, where innovation projects are managed within the public sector. Although university inventors and TTO managers have to operate outside of their competences, the market still demands a broad range of skills in spin-out companies. Researchers may need support to create teams with the required skills to support proof of concept applications. In this context, I explain to researchers where I can help them and where I cannot. If they need a specialist in regulatory affairs or a contract research lab partner, I try to find that person for them.
Isn't innovation exciting? Well, not always. It can be exciting, but it is often complex, political and demanding. Only through reflecting on your limitations as an inventor can you ensure that innovation is managed in a rational way and can eventually succeed.
Copyedited by Sarah Jennings