A difficult path to walk well: Technological Innovation


At the heart of technological innovation is the transformation of scientific or engineering research into novel commercial products. Innovative technologies can solve problems, generate improvements, and drive change in the way we do almost everything. Creating and exploiting such technologies has great potential for economic gain, for both the innovator and wider society. Big business strives to achieve this competitive advantage through research and development programmes and increasingly, research groups in universities try to commercialise their ideas through entrepreneurial ventures. So, how do these entrepreneurial researchers convert their ideas into commercially-viable opportunities?

A fairly well-trodden path for a researcher with a novel idea, that they believe may have commercial potential, is to develop a “spin-out” company, often supported by their university. These become start-ups, exploiting opportunities which – if successful – grow, creating wealth and jobs. Many successful ventures are eventually acquired by large companies when the product becomes viable for them, complementing their own internal research and development.

The reality is unsurprisingly far from straightforward and many ventures that start along the path do not reach fruition. It is not an easy task to identify whether a technological idea is a good business opportunity, and once the decision has been made to develop a spin-out, there are a whole range of challenges to overcome; from preserving intellectual property and raising funds, to regulatory compliance and the logistics of running a business. To find out more about how entrepreneurial researchers successfully convert their ideas into commercially viable opportunities, I spoke to a man who has successfully walked this path and has helped others to do the same.

Professor Peter Dobson is currently Director of the University of Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park, a pioneering development co-habited by world-leading research groups and early stage technology companies. He made his name as an innovator and entrepreneur by founding several nanotechnology spin out companies including Oxonica plc and Oxford Biosensors Ltd, and acting as a consultant to many more. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College and a Professor of Engineering Science. Prior to this, during the 1980s, he was a lecturer at Imperial College London and senior principal scientist at Philips Research Laboratories, having completed undergraduate and PhD studies at the University of Southampton.

What makes an innovative technological start-up successful?

I think that “success” means that new jobs have been created and hopefully the company is still in existence after 10 years and steadily growing. In my case, we did create new jobs but the companies grew and shrank. For a company to grow, and keep on growing, it has to produce something that the market needs and it has to have patient investors who will see the process through. The innovation timescale for companies that “make stuff” is quite long, typically 10 years and full of problems ranging from scale-up, recruitment of suitable people, to regulatory issues.

Do you think it’s possible to ‘create’ innovative ideas systematically – there seems to be some sense of “It just happens sometimes”?

I actually do believe that the innovation process can be taught and developed systematically. However, “invention” that leads to the innovation is more difficult. Personally I doubt that invention can be taught and I have come across a few naturally inventive people, and they are seldom the successful academic scientists with a high publication record. So to answer your question, I think “inventions just happen” but to turn the invention into a business is a lengthy and quite systematic process.

What would you say are the key challenges in converting science or ideas into commercial technologies – is the gap really that big?

I believe there has been a big cultural gap between science and technology in the UK and that this is partly responsible for our poor record in building new industries and businesses. In the academic world, most judgments of success have been based on an impressive publication record and until recently, patents and spin-off company activities or consultancies were not highly regarded. I hope this situation is changing, and the move of funding agencies to require some measure of societal or commercial impact is welcome.

Have you found that innovation is significantly different in academia compared with industrial research settings and does knowledge of one complement the other?

There is a very big cultural difference between large companies and small ones, and between companies and Universities. Large companies tend to have been very secretive but strongly supportive of new ideas as long as they will boost the company business. The innovators and inventors are recognised internally but often have no external recognition, and publication is usually discouraged. Some small spin-off companies are more closely similar to the University groups where they originated, and to be successful they have to quickly adapt to address the customer needs and create financial income for the company. This is where there is sometimes tension, the fresh post-graduate or post-doc takes time to adapt to this situation. The earlier these folk start asking questions such as “who really needs this new invention, and what is the likely size of the market?” then the more likely will be success.

What advice would you give to an undergraduate or postgraduate student with hopes of starting their own technology based company in the future?

First, a passion and determination to “make a difference” is essential. There is still a lot of learning ahead and it will be very different to academic research. The ability to work as a member of a team, to engage with potential customers and suppliers of material and services will all take time and require new skills. The student thinking of this path needs to do some soul searching to figure out if they really have the potential to acquire some of these skills. You also have to have a lot of self-confidence or team up with people who have it!

What new technologies or trends do you find exciting at the moment?

I am really excited about the new ways that nanotechnology is likely to impact healthcare, by developing new methods of therapy, diagnosis and tissue repair; I am also excited by the way that nanotechnology is changing the way we can create and store energy via new photovoltaic and battery materials. We are also going to see some very important developments in water remediation and food production using nanotechnology. The great thing about much of this is that an individual rather than a large corporation can come up with ideas that will change the world!