If innovation is the exploitation of new ideas, then in order to get innovation you need to start by accessing invention
Fortunately, the UK is a uniquely inventive nation. There is an incredible clustering of institutions overflowing with interesting technologies, whilst simultaneously a wealth of novel ideas emerging from individuals and design colleges. Accessing invention, however, gets you only to the starting gate of the innovation journey. Invention will remain just an invention unless it is given an application, an opportunity, a market or a need. But surely these are not lacking either?
MIND THE GAPS
So, we know there is no shortage of research and invention in academia and industry, and our healthcare system is brimming with people working at the point of delivery, ideally placed to spot needs. Moreover, we have people defining policy, and importantly, prolific funding for research. Why therefore, when seemingly all the right components are in place, is our record in the UK for successful transfer of invention into commercial innovation so poor?
What is lacking is the ability to bridge the gaps and ?translate? between these disparate groups of academia, industry and policy makers who essentially need to work together to create a culture of innovation. It is not simply about making connections but giving clear direction in the language they each speak. The role of the ?translator? requires the ability to truly grasp the technology?s benefits, understand the latter stages of the development process and to interface with industry, whilst having the experience of needs and markets, enabling a creative step and spotting potential matches.
To illustrate issues that thwart the invention to innovation passage, we were asked to look at a Department of Health funded project which, while showing great clinical potential, seemed to have stalled.
The DH put out a call to fund research that sought ways to sterilise medical instruments contaminated by CJD. CJD has proven impossible to remove from instruments by current sterilisation methods, resulting in their removal for safe storage in perpetuity if used on CJD patients; £3,000 endoscopes are bagged and tagged for exclusive use on that one patient only. A UK university responded and subsequently invented and patented a technique which met the need.
The technique ablates organic matter away whereas current methods leave it there and merely sterilise it. The new technique uses gas plasma sterilisation to remove prions to levels a thousand times lower than those achieved by existing methods.
A convincing technology had been developed with much evidence to prove its effectiveness, including working prototypes and limited animal testing. However, it reached a point where it could go no further. Despite apparent success at having met need, approaches by the university technology transfer department to the major sterilisation market leaders generated little interest. While the DH saw the technology as meeting the need, it was not apparent how it would fit into current routines and systems. Consequently, we were asked to help establish why and what could be done.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Through assessing the research outcomes and project status, we explored the opportunity and evaluated the progress made to date. A better understanding was gained of the role of the parties involved, including an OEM who was producing prototypes, plus a potential commercial partner. Deeper investigation explored the attempts made by the technology transfer department to commercialise the project. Our investigation sought to expose what may have gone wrong and what lessons could be learnt.
ILLUSTRATING ITS POTENTIAL
A number of reasons could explain why the project stalled. The first could be attributed to a major player in the sterilisation market releasing a product with apparent similarities. While branded as a new ?plasma sterilisation technology?, plasma was only used once sterilisation was complete, in order to neutralise the toxicity of the residual hydrogen peroxide. This competing technology, while not widely accepted, managed to throw doubt on the originality of the university?s technology thus tainting it in the mind of potential licensees. Secondly, both academics and technology transfer alike failed to illustrate the technology?s simplicity and practical benefits, unsuccessfully illustrating to potential commercial partners how near to market this technology actually was.
Without a route to market, illustration of practical benefits and clear direction, instead of being a technology pulled through by need it reverted to a technology competing to find a market gap. What was missing from the project was showing how the technology could be made into a practical solution ? the translation.
The lessons that can be drawn from this project are not unique; they could apply to most, if not all, projects that move ideas to commercial outcomes. The role of the translator is vital to bridge the gaps helping to transform innovation in the UK.
For further information contact Mike Pearson:
Tel: +44 (0)20 8547 0470
Added the 11 September 2008 in category Innovation UK Vol4-1