The two ends of the innovation chain

09th June 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan, Corporate Advisor and Distinguished Professor at IIT Kharagpur rgopal@themindworks.me Perovskite is mineral calcium titanate, discovered in the Ural Mountains in 1839, the same year that Jamsetji Tata was born. 168 years later, perovskite is at the heart of a very exciting solar technology.

09th June 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

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

Perovskite is mineral calcium titanate, discovered in the Ural Mountains in 1839, the same year that Jamsetji Tata was born. 168 years later, perovskite is at the heart of a very exciting solar technology. Describing examples through this column, I had earlier averred that the time lag between scientific invention and commercialization is long. Readers pushed back because (a) innovators don’t straddle the value chain from science to consumption and (b) anyway time lines are declining with new technologies. For example, a coin-sized chip, branded BatEye has been placed on the bat in the ongoing Champion’s Trophy games; it beams wireless data on the ball angle and bat speed, amplifying enjoyment for the cricket spectator.

I researched data on the time gap from science to commercialization. Three scientists from the University of Tokyo, having studied time lags in the solar industry, did not find anything conclusive (2009). In another study (2011), scientists of The Institute of Public Health, Cambridge University stated, “We concluded that the current state of knowledge of time lags…….is of limited use.” However I feel that there are two noteworthy principles–first, that time lines are indeed different from category to category, but their life cycles evolve through a similar pattern and, second, that innovations do not follow a linear pathway.

Life cycle: Technology Life Cycle (TLC) refers to the time and cost of developing technology (R&D), and finding ways to recover those costs (manufacturing and marketing). Studies of TLCs indicate that some technologies like paper, cement and steel have a long life span–there are continual variations in technology over a long time–while in others like electronics, the TLC may be quite short. A biology metaphor may help.

Fruit flies and tortoises have a similar-shaped life cycle, but fruit flies live only fifteen days while tortoises
live two hundred years. Around 1900, agricultural scientist Max Kleiber at Davis, California established that the number of heart beats tends to remain stable within a species, so the bigger the animal, the slower its heart beat. Bigger animals take time to use up their quota. (This fact does not make big animals less or more efficient than small animals).

Without doubt there are difficulties in judging precisely when the science was invented and when commercialization occurred. In particular the technology industry thinks in terms of ‘platform’ versus ‘application’ technologies—desktop operating systems like Adobe Postscript, Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac are platform technologies with a long durability. Application innovations derive from exploiting existing scientific knowledge into new market uses, for example, Adobe PDF.

Apple impresses because of its consumer innovations; its R&D expenditure at 3.5% of revenue is much smaller than say Intel, Alphabet or Microsoft. The iPhone innovation included nine ‘enabler’ semiconductor technologies (like central processors, dynamic random-access memory, liquid crystal and lithium-ion batteries) and three ‘enhancing’ technologies (like GPS and AI with voice interface). The science underlying these technologies go back several decades, and Apple’s genius lay in integrating these technologies in a distinctive and consumer-relevant manner. Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem Press, 2013) is quite instructive in elaborating this view.

Innovation pathway: The Technology Strategy Board report of May 2011 from the UK Department of Business, innovation and Skills recognized the non-linear pathways of some innovations in its report, “The path from initial idea to market-ready product is uneven, and has many twists and turns.” The linear model of innovation gained credibility after the Second World War principally due to recognition of innovative technologies in defence. The atomic bomb had its origins in nuclear and elementary physics, just like radar technology had origins in the science of microwave radiation. These are extensively described in the Princeton publication, Innovation and Commercialization, published in 1995.

Iterative technology development which followed a non-linear path have been recognized, for example, innovations spurred through new insights about market demand or innovations where application technology preceding the science. An example of innovation through consumer insights is how the video cassette recorder was commercialized. An example of the application preceding science is how the Wright brothers made a flying machine without knowing much about aerodynamics.

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