Failure is an option when it comes to innovation

17th April 2020

Blog by Dr Matt Bawn, Quadram Institute Postdoctoral Society, Innovation group

Innovation: a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method. This is a dictionary definition, the same dictionary defines science as: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method. Looking at the two definitions don’t seem to have much connection but innovation is a concept that is at the root of  good science.

Scientists have to be innovative in the way they apply new technologies and techniques and increasingly we are turning to industry collaborations to allow us to be even more innovative. There are many uncertainties in the changing economic and political climate, funding for scientific research is one of them.

As scientists we therefore need to be more proactive in the application of our findings. This can mean patenting or licencing novel findings or even starting spin-out companies. These are the less-trodden routes to impact and traditionally academia has measured scientists and scientific output mainly in terms of peer reviewed journal articles. In these changing times however, the Quadram Institute is placing innovation at the heart of its research strategy.

As Ian Charles, Director of the Quadram Institute says: “The new Quadram Institute will become a beacon of excellent science and innovation. Part of our vision is to develop an entrepreneurship program that can translate the energy and enthusiasm of our staff to make the most from our technology and research.”

To help deliver this Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB) applied for and won a National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to deliver innovation training to its early career researchers.

In the first phase of the grant a series of seven  workshops exploring the foundations of innovation and entrepreneurship was planned with the University of East Anglia’s entrepreneur in residence David Dent. The series covers themes such as, Communicating science for commercialisation, Networking and Building Partnerships and Managing scientific interdisciplinary research.

With the current coronavirus pandemic, the workshop series has been moved online and the first workshop, an introduction to Entrepreneurship and Innovation was delivered on 6 April. The workshop also included an exercise in invention where participants were asked to consider the steps involved in taking an invention to market. some of which were inspired by the QIB response to coronavirus.

The second phase of the training will focus more on enabling early career researchers at the QIB to pursue their own ideas and goals, with potential seed funding and mentorship. These grants have been given to several UK research institutions but at the Quadram the training is being led by the early career researchers for their benefit. The Quadram Institute Postdoc Society (QIPS) is driving this, with the support of Helene Savignac, the Head of Business Development at Quadram Institute, and Patricia Hart, the Directorate Manager.

A recent survey on worldwide research culture from the Wellcome Trust shows changes are necessary in the way we are currently doing research.  Researchers were concerned that “The system favours quantity over quality, and creativity is often stifled”, from the introductory definition it is clear that Innovation can be key to allowing researchers to be more creative but at the same time impactful and productive.

The study also found that: “Researchers are passionate and proud about their work, but have concerns about job security”, and we hope that through increased and novel training we are helping ourselves to be better placed and better informed of new opportunities.

As David Dent says: “Successful entrepreneurs have a constant hunger for making things better, and scientists have this too … the major characteristic of entrepreneurs is the ability to risk failure at the deepest personal level.”

Early career researchers are no strangers to the risk of failure, we have chosen a career path that constantly pits us against failure and challenges our resilience. We should, therefore, be well placed to become successful entrepreneurs and we hope the NPIF grant will help many of us to realise this.