The World Wide Web, touchscreens and radiotherapy are just three of the revolutionary technologies that were discovered in research labs, without clear commercial applications at first.
With their deep pockets and long-term views, big science research labs continue to be fertile grounds for breakthroughs. But how to develop their findings’ commercial applications is far from clear. One approach in the innovation literature is known as “serendipity,” which might be loosely defined as “looking for lucky breaks or happy accidents.” But can serendipity be systematized for better results? “Yes,” is the short answer. With help.
To better understand how purely scientific inventions can get to the market, IESE’s Laia Pujol and co-authors analyze the operations of ATTRACT, an EU-funded initiative that aims to “systematize the discovery of breakthrough applications” for new technologies from six leading European science research institutions. The results of their study are published in Systematizing serendipity for big science infrastructures: The ATTRACT project forthcoming in the journal Technovation.
In Europe alone, there are at least 55 “big science research infrastructures” (known in research as BSRIs) and more than 130 in the United States. All require significant public investments and, as such, policymakers typically seek to optimize their potential socioeconomic returns.
What are the main obstacles to the transfer of their technologies to alternative commercial applications? Researchers note that public institutions may have very different processes compared with most commercial innovation contexts and may even be antagonistic to commercialization. Project timeframes may span decades, making them difficult to sync with the shorter horizons of venture capital. In addition, the focus is usually on “deep tech” advances, which may require much more extensive development than consumer-oriented products.
To address such challenges in the European Union, ATTRACT is a promising initiative that has already provided 170 projects with 100,000 euros each for the development of a proof-of-concept or prototype for a commercial application over just one year. The main novelty is that ATTRACT’s funding goes directly to the research institutions; they are in charge of selecting which technologies to promote and then creating a plan to make the commercial leap, forging negotiations with industrial partners.