The Saga of Research vs Innovation

Little green men vs little red man ...

1. Two worlds divided by a common goal

I have been working for over 40 years now in the environment of research and, as years went by, more and more pressure was put (on researchers) to make sure their research results could generate revenues, in other terms can create innovation on the market.

This does not seem unreasonable (particularly if you are the one funding the research). But what is the difference between research and innovation?

Well, it's easy! Research is a lever that provided with money will generate knowledge whilst innovation is a lever that provided with knowledge will generate money, as exemplified in the sketch I drew.

On the other hand, if the concept is so easy to grasp how is it that in over 40 years working in research, and observing research being done in many companies, I have never seen a successful transition from research to innovation carried out by researchers? Yes, I know what you are thinking: "look at Apple" (just to name one company), and I'll come back to that in the continuation of the saga.

This post, and the following ones, have been written under the effect of a meeting I had last week to make sure that the results produced by a supposedly innovation activity being executed by one of our teams at the EIT ICT LABS would indeed result in innovation and not in nice knowledge creation (research output).

I think that there is a gross misunderstanding on the drawing linking research to innovation. And it is a misunderstanding at several levels.

I explicitly drew little green men carrying out research and little red men carrying out innovation to highlight immediately that they are different from one another. They have different skills, different motivation, and they operate in different environment. That is why I drew them "outside" of the loop, and not inside.

Now, don't take me wrong, you might run into a little red man that dresses up in green to do research so that he gets what he needs to innovate, and I met a few of them in my professional life. But on the average they are exception and they will not accept to disguise themselves as green men for long. On the other hand, I still have to meet a real green man disguising himself as a red man.

A green man, a researcher, is doing his activity for the pleasure of understanding technology, science, and to create knowledge. If you ask him: "what's that for" he is likely to shrug, saying that you never know, something that might seem useless today may have a tremendous impact tomorrow (you might remember JJ Thomson's, the discover of the electron, favourite toast: "To the electron -- may it never be of any use to anybody."  But, most importantly, he is not interested in pursuing that impact. Having his paper presented at a major conference or published by a leading journal is all it takes to make him happy. He is willing to accept as result of his research nothing but the best.

On the other hand a red (wo)man is focussing on hitting the market and making money. If that money comes because she is first to (understand) the market or because her product cut costs, or is something really new doesn't really make a difference. Now don't take me wrong. Innovators are proud of their baby, as researchers are proud of theirs. But they look at different aspects to be proud of.

They are both aiming at re-shaping the future, that goal is the same, but they belong to two different worlds.

So the first reason why I think there is so little research that morphs into innovation is the difference in the players involved. More reasons tomorrow...


Author - Roberto Saracco

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