Close panel

Close panel

Close panel

Close panel

Analysis and opinion 01 Mar 2019

Business and science today: the re-invention of R&D


Leaning against the trunk of an apple tree in 1666, Isaac Newton asked himself, “Why do apples fall?” Perhaps some of the neighboring farmers would have thought: “Well, that’s a waste of time.” And maybe they would have added, “What’s the use of thinking about such obvious occurrences? Apples fall because they fall.” Behind this possible recrimination there might have been some noteworthy ideas about the importance of productivity and the food chain: what is important about apples is how to harvest them and capitalize on them.

Newton's interest, paradoxically, didn’t have an immediate goal. His train of thought was impartial and open: he wanted to know for knowing’s sake. For a mindset that is functional or practical, it's not easy to cope with this type of scientific approach. Knowing how to incorporate these two perspectives in society is one of the feats that has contributed to civilization's development.

Newton's discoveries, added to those of contemporary physics, have had innumerable applications in diverse industries: aeronautics, astronomy, meteorology, and even in space exploration. The business world, though, has had to wait many years in order to reap the rewards of such discoveries. Part of the current challenge is to better integrate the processes of these two different worlds.

How can the relationship between science and business in today's world be strengthened? The history is complex, and it is worthwhile to take a look at different initiatives and current possibilities: business, government, independent, and university-run laboratories. And a large range of variety can be found within these relationships: synergistic, symbiotic, even utilitarian, parasitic, or ones based on commensalism. The twentieth-century showcases these contradictions.

Knowing how to strengthen and keep the relationships between science and business balanced is difficult but possible.  The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, has stepped up to this challenge. According to its own definition: “Horizon 2020 for the first time integrates funding for all phases, from lab to market.” After having produced demonstrable benefits, the continuation of the initiative – under the renamed Horizon Europe – has been confirmed.

But the synergies between science and business are not only born out of government policies. One of the most interesting examples is the founding of the Stanford Research Park, the nucleus of Silicon Valley in California. This program was conceived as an idea by Frederick Terman, professor at Stanford University. Professor Terman knew how to find those points of confluence between academia and the world of business. In a world where technology is fundamental, applied research is one of the pillars of enterprise innovation. Its importance lies in the development of new technologies that have an impact on the quality of work and social progress.

Business is  also well aware of the need for scientific research. It is increasingly responsible, sustainable, and respectful in its approach to academia. Although today's world, more than anything, demands flexibility and dialogue. In his article “Open Innovation: Striving for Innovation Success in the 21st Century” included in the BBVA-sponsored compendium  'Reinventing the company in the digital age', Henry Chesbrough, professor at the Haas School of Business, points out that the flows of innovation – both inflows and outflows – have to be open and associated with business models that allow constant reinvention. For example, companies keep a watchful eye on the dynamics of the so-called “spinoff”.

The synergies between science and business are not only born out of government policies

'CityHome' was a research project conducted some years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The idea was to create furniture with "superpowers,” as Hasier Larrea explains in a TED-talk in Cambridge, MA. This model for a flexible, efficient home for small spaces was developed by a team of scientists led by the architect Kent Larson in the City Science Group. From inventions that were conceived in the laboratory, a company called Ori was born. As mentioned in the MIT News this spinout is based on years of research work conducted at Media Lab, and provides a good example of a company with roots in the inventive energy found in a university laboratory.

Spin is a word with several meanings, all related in one way or another to the idea of movement. The most common meaning is "to revolve or rotate." Two specific terms that are related – spinoff and spinout – metaphorically reference the boost of momentum produced by fast-moving rotation. These terms refer to either a business or entertainment venture that is born out of another idea or precursor of some kind. Propelled by a kind of centrifugal force, emanating from the center, though moving outwards.

Harnessing the energy that is produced by research teams and leveraging it for business ventures is an interesting formula. Achieving this ideal conversely requires that scientific teams are sensitive to and have knowledge about the world of business and finance.

Perhaps one of the keys to promoting the convergence of these two worlds lay with their leaders’ capacity to understand one another. Technological is clamoring for this dialogue. Ethical clarity and suitable legislation that safeguards the rights of those involved are also needed to achieve this end.

Other interesting stories