The Key to Innovation: Get the Scientist out of the Lab

By April 14, 2014
passerelles entre recherche et innovation

Open Innovation partnerships, laboratories combining cross-disciplinary expertise, external input from startups – these are some of the ways of putting research to best use and encouraging practical innovation.

Research and innovation need to work in tandem. While this might seem to be basic common sense, it is not all that easy to make it happen in reality. How can we get this initiative moving? Who’s in the driving seat? Who benefits, and in what way? Delegates from several major French private and state-owned companies answered some of these questions at the Journée Nationale de l’Ingénieur (National Engineer’s Day) conference which took place on 3 April at the City of Science and Industry site in Paris. Everyone was in agreement that there can be no innovation without technology, which means no innovation without technology experts. However, as many scientists tend to stay in their labs, it is likely that many promising inventions never see the light of day. It would therefore seem to be a good idea to create a system for market testing ideas and identifying relevant ecosystems. “We need to cross-fertilise cultures and skills and generate a virtuous circle,” argued Bernard Scherrer, Head of Open Innovation at French utility giant EDF. He told the audience that incubators ought to be working to bring engineering schools and business schools closer together. Creating clusters which bring together academic research, smaller companies and major firms may be the right approach to developing technologies which large firms have no incentive to drive forward on their own.

No development without a perceived need

An Innovation culture is essential for a company such as EDF, where the R&D department comprises 200 engineers carrying out research into very specific areas of energy provision – notably nuclear power and alternative energy sources. This is only possible however when the Group’s various businesses agree that a given solution will create value. And the best way to encourage that is to get the researchers to work upfront with the business areas so that good ideas emanating from research can be transformed into practical innovations. This also means looking outside the group. “We go looking for startups that are working on different areas from our own projects,” explained Scherrer. This is the basic purpose of Electranova Capital, a ‘cleantech’ venture capital fund backed by EDF. Out of the 300 start-ups which the fund spots every year, around a third will find a business area suited to the technology they are developing. In the end, only 25 will get to the demonstration and testing stage. In the longer term EDF wants to see this proportion increase. “A giant company such as EDF getting together with a startup is a bit like an elephant meeting a mouse. But it’s the elephant that’s scared of the mouse because the mouse runs much faster and the elephant finds it difficult to keep up,” pointed out Bernard Scherrer.

Open Innovation a vital stimulus

Major companies that want to remain competitive are now increasingly turning to Open Innovation, PSA Peugeot Citroën being a prime example. “We had to look outside the company,” explained Sylvain Allano, Science and Future Technologies Director at the French automobile group, whose job it is to put PSA’s knowledge to optimal use. He explained that the company “has set up research teams on university campuses,” creating Open Labs – ten in total throughout the world including five in China – which work together in a network. Allano argues that “the next step is to establish ecosystems that will encourage engineers to set up their own company.” Inserm, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, a state organisation for basic research, where innovation basically involves turning research work into new medicines, is going the same route. However, “invention doesn’t turn into a health product just like that,” underlined Cécile Tharaud, Managing Director of Inserm Transfert, a legally incorporated subsidiary of Inserm which provides seed funding to young companies working in the biomedical field. The best way of getting there is to set up Open Innovation partnerships. “We had to convince researchers that working on practical innovation would not somehow sully their research achievements and that this type of partnership can actually generate ‘good science’. Results so far are encouraging: the number of innovations has tripled. However there is still a question mark over how profits are to be shared. Obstacles regarding intellectual property rights on patents need to be removed and a state-owned organisation should for instance have the option of selling a licence to a startup company in return for a stake in the business, she argued.

Legal mentions © L’Atelier BNP Paribas