To Get Ahead, Britain Needs a Merger Between Business and Science

12/12/2012 12:07 GMT | Updated 10/02/2013 10:12 GMT

According to Nesta, the independent UK science charity, the UK is at the end of a "lost decade" in which investment in innovation has fallen off a cliff, as evidenced by the decline in investment of over £24bn in the last four years alone.

In a recent survey of 1,200 UK businesses, Nesta concluded that the UK has suffered a "crisis of confidence...prioritising cash and concrete over investment in innovation."

The report is an important piece of work, yet, when it comes to the role innovation has to play in generating economic value for the UK economy, it addresses only half the issue.

With 80% of the new ideas being produced in the world's universities and research labs failing to make it to market, questions have to be asked over not just levels of investment in innovation, but how business is accessing the work that is already being produced.

We have outstanding research facilities in this country, and the UK's R&D infrastructure was boosted only last week by a £600m investment in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement. But, with research professionals weak on development, and business slow to produce game changing research, the two sides that need to come together to create marketable innovation are fundamentally failing to service each other's needs.

Where business would benefit from an open innovation policy of bringing in the best, most widely-sourced research innovations, many corporations are unnecessarily, restrictively insular in their approach to seeking new ideas.

And yet, as IBM's 2012 CEO survey has demonstrated, one of the biggest worries for corporate leaders is that the technology their companies are working on will become outdated before it reaches the market, as they are leapfrogged by more nimble competitors.

And from the academic standpoint, it's hardly being controversial to suggest that research professionals could do with some help in getting their work out of the lab, and into the product development stage.

The problem is, that sharp suited corporate types, and lab-coated research pros aren't the most compatible of business bedfellows.

To unlock the potential that their more comprehensive collaboration holds, a facilitating process is needed, and it already exists, in the form of technology transfer.

This is the process by which businesses both large and small can get their hands on the cutting-edge research that could hold the key to the next big technology breakthrough.

It allows business to focus on its core strengths: developing ideas into products, putting innovation into the hands of the consumer, and realising the commercial value of the money being poured into research infrastructure in the UK.

The benefits of tech transfer are multiple for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Corporations may think that they have research well covered, but even for the Googles and Amazons of the tech world, the question has to be asked: why limit yourself to what your cadre of bright minds can come up with, when the output of the world's innovators and researchers is within reach?

Smaller businesses don't have that problem, but are in need of the research they can't pay to undertake themselves. Technology transfer puts it within their reach and levels the playing field. It's not just the scope and scale of research potential that technology transfer creates, but the speed of access it allows, that should be getting the business community excited.

Research takes time, which is a scarce commodity in the fast-moving digital sphere. By pursuing an open innovation strategy and getting the development-ready IP straight from the researchers, businesses can go from concept to development in months rather than years.

And it's not just the UK's research potential that can be brought to bear. Pioneering work to bring together the new discoveries of research facilities from around the world, on the part of Tekcapital, is both widening access to cutting edge IP and allowing businesses to compare how the same ideas are being developed differently across a whole range of countries and research facilities.

What have historically been unwieldy and unconnected sources of innovation are being rationalised to do the work that businesses could only replicate for themselves through countless hours of manual searching.

This consolidation of the available new discoveries can help free us from the existing dysfunctional system whereby universities use incubators to essentially guess what business might want, while CEOs hamper their efforts to create a competitive advantage with an excessively narrow approach to accessing new research and innovation.

What Britain needs is for the two sides to be networked systematically. Then, with the output of the world's leading scientists and engineers at its fingertips, UK business can get to the front of the innovation queue.