07/24/2020 | Research meets practice

Innovation is anything but rocket science

Why great scientists are not necessarily great innovators.

"Researchers need to sell their ideas in a simple, clear and understandable way."

“Eureka” said Archimedes, as he rose from the bathtub and went running through the streets of Syracuse to go and file a patent. Well, he didn’t, but obviously his scientific research did find its way into marketable applications nonetheless. Even in his lifetime, his inventions came into (mostly military) use, and although he didn’t hold any patents or receive license fees, it appears that he lived quite comfortably.

Today’s researchers are usually in a less convenient situation. Public money doesn’t take the form of lifelong sinecures, but rather of EU programs or national funding by one institution or the other. Both are limited in terms of time and funding.

Why, then, do so few researchers take matters into their own hands and found a business? With so much money going into research and so many bright minds, shouldn’t there be plenty of ways to turn great science into business?

A lot has been said about the “valley of death” in funding, the lack of private investment in Europe as compared to the US or Israel and the competition for talent between big industry and risky startups.

But there might be a more fundamental misunderstanding concerning the translation of “great science” into innovation. Innovation usually does not derive from “great science”, meaning cutting-edge research. Turning cutting-edge research into innovation means that you have to tackle two risks at once: The risk of your science failing, and the risk of your business plan going awry. It also means that you have to explain cutting-edge research to business people. Let’s face it: Does a presentation on company taxation in multi-national holdings really makes you catch your breath? So why should a banker be fasci­nated about the discovery what enzyme x does to protein y as compared to enzyme z?

So, in most cases, innovation is not cutting-edge research brought into reality but rather not-so-exciting solid research brought into a new context. To do this, founders don’t have to be the brightest scientific minds on earth, but they have to understand the needs of the customer. They have to be able to see a piece of not-so-exciting science in a new light that makes it a very exciting piece of innovation. They have to be courageous, open-minded and not afraid of selling their ideas in a simple, clear and understandable way – and while the first two apply to great researchers as well, the last is not always highly regarded in the scientific community.

It seems that Archimedes was the rare exception who was both: A very bright mind with great abstract ideas and the gift to explain them to “ordinary” people such as generals or kings. So, prospective founders: Go out of the lab, into the bathtub and discover your inner Archimedes!

*This text was inspired by the stories two founders told about their experiences in a webinar in the EU project KETBIO. Listen to the recording and find more information on starting a business on the website www.ketbio.eu.


Kathrin Rübberdt



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