It takes long from invention to commercialization

12rd May 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan, Corporate Advisor and Distinguished Professor at IIT Kharagpur rgopal@themindworks.me I have been struggling with the nagging question about how long it takes for an invention (when an original idea has been articulated) to become commercial (when it is widely sold in market).

12rd May 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan, Corporate Advisor and Distinguished Professor at IIT Kharagpur rgopal@themindworks.me

I have been struggling with the nagging question about how long it takes for an invention (when an original idea has been articulated) to become commercial (when it is widely sold in market). The grant of a patent is an intermediate step. Based on limited anecdotal evidence, I had averred that it could be 30-50 years. Since then readers have offered alternative perspectives on timelines.

Joseph Swan obtained the patent for an incandescent bulb as early as 1860, but it took another 23 years for Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan to launch electric bulbs under the brand name, Ediswan. With regard to electric irons, a patent existed in 1882, but it took another 54 years before a safe, thermostatically controlled electric iron became a consumer product. Sliced bread was patented in 1912, but it took 16 more years for Otto Frederick Rohwedder to launch his product in the small town of Chillicothe in Ohio–in 2003, the mayor of Chillicothe commemorated the 75th year of sliced bread. Swachh Bharat enthusiasts might find new knowledge in learning that although the flush toilet was patented in 1778, it took another 70 years for an English plumber, Thomas Crapper, to market a flushing toilet. It is speculated that in the process, he inadvertently lent his name to the act!

It is erroneously assumed that P&G’s Pampers marked the launch of the disposable diaper. However as early as 1942, 24 years before the launch of Pampers, a Swedish company, Paulistrom, made the first cloth inserts made of tissue. American scientist, Marion Donovan, prototyped her disposable diaper in 1946 and started selling her product in 1949. Johnson & Johnson launched and marketed Chux, an expensive ancestor of Pampers. So even a seemingly simple product like diapers took a quarter of a century to get to market from prototype.

While ideas and patents have a sequential life, they also have a horizontal life as illustrated by roller balls, which have a rolling ball in contact with a suitably thick material. Although the first patent for ball pens were granted in the 1880s, commercial ball pens emerged only in 1939. Based on the same principle, MUM Company launched a roll-on deodorant in 1955. In 1964 David Engelbart launched a computer mouse, based again on the roller ball. Ball pen to roll-on deodorant to computer mouse, all sharing technologies!

In December 2015, the UK Energy Research Centre published a ‘rapid review’ on the time taken for new technologies to reach widespread commercialization. The report visualized innovation to be in two composite phases—first, the ‘invention-development-demonstration’ phase and, second, the ‘market deployment and commercialization’ phase. For their review, they considered the facts concerning 14 innovations. Their findings :

  • Average time from invention to widespread commercialization was 39 years.
  • There was wide variation among the 14 innovations, some shorter and some longer than the average.
  • Innovations that replace existing products had shorter timelines (29 years) compared to those aimed at new markets (42 years).
  • In many cases the basic scientific principle was established long before a product appeared. For example, the photovoltaic cell using selenium was established in the 1870s, but the silicon-based solar cell appeared in 1954. The cathode ray tube was invented in 1897, but it took several decades before the television set appeared in the market.

Three noteworthy points: first, innovation takes longer than many think, quite unlike the journalistic imagery of ‘dramatic and disruptive’ innovations. Second, innovations have a life cycle, sometimes short and sometimes long. Although the fruit fly lives 15 days and the tortoise lives 150 years, their biological cycles are amazingly similar. Third and last, it takes long because the inventor cannot understand everything and does not realize the depth of his or her ignorance about what it takes to convert an invention into a product. The human mind is not built to acquire details about every aspect of an innovation.

Humbling, is it not?

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