Dr. Steve Jones delivered a thought-provoking keynote presentation at the IeMRC Seminar on Plastic and Printed Electronics in Loughborough, UK on 19 March 2012. Highly acclaimed for the excellence of his many technical presentations, Dr. Jones had by request taken an alternative approach and presented his views from a philosophical, rather than scientific, perspective, reflecting upon the real meanings of invention, innovation and R&D, and the roles of government and industry in the commercialisation of printed interconnects. His presentation caught the attention of the audience and stimulated some energetic discussion.
After the seminar, I-Connect007 Technical Editor Pete Starkey took the opportunity to sit down with Steve Jones and invite him to expand on some of the observations he had made.
Starkey: Steve, that was different but quite enlightening and we heard some very interesting points of view. What do you personally understand as meaningful definitions of invention, innovation, and R&D?
Jones: We have a need to differentiate: R&D is not a single concept. “Invention” refers directly to the creation of an idea or method. This tends to be called “Research/Discovery” and to lie more with universities rather than industry. They try to understand the underlying laws of physics and chemistry. “
Innovation” differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or discovery. This tends to be called “Development” and lies more with industry than universities. Innovation leads to things that are accepted by markets and society. Innovation is the catalyst for growth: from craft shop to factory, from lab to fab. There is a flow from discovery through an engineered manufacturing process to benefits for society. Take as examples light bulbs; incandescent, fluorescent and LED/OLED: telephones; telegraph, landline, cellular and smartphone. There is more than a hundred years down each development chain, but the societal benefits of light and communication have been transformational.
Starkey: Does innovation only flow from newer entrepreneurial companies? Are large companies only capable of incremental improvements to established technologies?
Jones: Let’s look at some landmarks within our lifetime: The first transistor radio went on sale in USA in 1954, the silicon chip was invented in 1958, IBM introduced the PC in 1981, Apple launched the Macintosh in 1984, and the World Wide Web was first made available to the public in 1991. Innovation is the generation and commercialisation of novel ideas, products and processes. The larger technology-based companies recognise the imperative to innovate and tend to have specialised R&D units to promote technological innovation. The strength of these units has traditionally been their ability to innovate incrementally and refine existing products and processes rather than generate radical innovation. It is aimed at mainstream activity and tends to emphasise cost or feature improvements to existing products. Radical, or transformational, innovation produces substantial improvements and radically alters or even creates markets. Printed electronics sits here.
Starkey: So what are the issues for the larger company?
Jones: Radical technologies often look financially unattractive or risky and the markets are ill defined at best. The timeframes are much longer than with incremental innovation and shareholders and stakeholders tend to be risk averse. As successful companies become older they tend to develop shared expectations leading to cultural resistance to change, and this has also been true of universities. Company inertia can also be a factor: Organisational routines are important but hinder in an environment undergoing change. Look at Kodak and ICI for example. You don’t get sacked for saying “no” to risk; you get sacked for saying “yes” and not meeting expectations!