GUEST BLOG: A good scientific innovation does not a business make

Just because something is innovative, does not mean you can commercialise it.  I found this out the hard way.

We came up with a ground-breaking design for a new kind of oven. But when we approached the oven manufacturers, there was no interest. It turned out there was no money in it for them. The new technology would benefit the customer who would save money, but manufacturers and retailers would have a capital outlay and very little scope to recover it.

Another problem was that cook books, which are a huge market, would not match the capabilities of our oven. Another almost insurmountable big barrier to business.

In the end, although the big oven manufacturers were interested in the technology, the market was just too puny. With this innovation we had come up with great engineering science but we still have yet to find the "killer application" to make a business around it. 

Our next innovation was microbubble technology. Now, this does have a commercial application. Microbubbles advance the commercial and environmental viability of algal biofuels, so we've had lots of interested businesses knocking at our door.

After we had patented the technology and could publish our findings, we won the 2009 IChemE Moulton Medal. The most lucrative and, crucially, low hanging fruit applications of microbubbles have found us because of the perfect storm of publicity that followed. News has spread with last summer's webinar, a Royal Society Innovation award, and most recently, our success at the AXA Insurance Cleantech Open UK ideas competition.

Publicity gets the problem owners to think how we might have the problem solution. Of course, the difficulty lies in that we have invented processes that are potential components to be adapted to other people's products or systems. If you make a widget that only does one thing then the market are the users of that one thing. This microbubble technology does seven fundamental things better (at last count) than existing technologies and hence has more applications than I originally imagined.

Ultimately, if you are developing new innovations and science-based ideas, think carefully about your potential market, and how you might access it. If you don't your brilliant idea will never be realised.

Professor Will Zimmerman is Professor of Biochemical Dynamical Systems at the University of Sheffield, and recently won the AXA Insurance Cleantech Open UK ideas competition, going on to represent the UK in the global competition.

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