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Achieving innovation

04 Apr 2018
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Physics World

Innovation in physics is simple in principle, but much harder in practice. James McKenzie reckons a business start-up award could be just the thing to help

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Reaching nirvana: Innovative firms gain from help. (Courtesy: iStock/Sitthiphong)

Physics is at the heart of innovations all around us. From laptops to sat-navs and mobiles, it’s in your home, in your car and in your pocket. Physics helps you get more work done and enjoy more time off, gets you where you’re going, and keeps you safe. It underpins the growth that will secure our economic future. We as physicists know that, but does the rest of the world?

There are many definitions of innovation in business, but perhaps the simplest – and the one that sticks most in my mind – is attributed to Geoffrey Nicholson, the father of the Post-it Note. While working at the US adhesives giant 3M, he is alleged to have said: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money.” It’s a simple enough statement, but doing innovation, and succeeding commercially at it, that’s the difficult bit.

As I mentioned in my first Transactions column, my career in industry has in some ways been quite specialized and left me unaware of all the amazing things going on in the wider physics community. However, during my stint as vice-president for business at the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, I have had the good fortune to serve on the judging panel for the IOP’s business innovation awards. Running since 2012, they have showcased some of the fantastic and wide-ranging innovations created by entrepreneurs using physics.

The awards are the only ones to recognize companies in the UK and Ireland that have built success on the innovative application of physics. These are the businesses that have generated profit, secured jobs and improved efficiency across a range of sectors. Looking at last year’s nine ­winners, they are an impressive bunch covering medicine, cryogenics, microscopy, imaging, solar cells, space technology, communications, advanced generators and shock testing.

One of the challenges facing physics-based businesses is how much longer it takes to develop products or services compared to, say, a chef who wants to open a restaurant. It can take years to get products ready and usually requires significant investment. There is also the added challenge of explaining the physics of a product idea, which is often quite specialized, to financial investors or business angels with little or no scientific knowledge.

Physics-based firms can take years to get products ready and usually requires significant investment. There is also the added challenge of explaining the physics of a product idea.

There have been many occasions when I’ve had to bite my lip when a confused investor tries to paraphrase my in-depth pitch about the technology with a comment like “Oh so what you mean is…” What you want to say in reply is something like, “Er no, that’s completely wrong. I can see you didn’t get it or weren’t listening.” Instead, a diplomatic “Well, yes, it is a little like that, but…” emerges from your lips.

A kick-start for start-ups

Recognizing that small firms face their own, unique challenges, my colleagues and I at the IOP have decided to split the business innovation awards so there are now separate business start-up awards. Previously it had been hard for an early-stage business to provide sufficient evidence of commercial growth to be recognized. (There are also IOP awards for people and teams who have applied physics in a commercial or industrial context, namely the Katharine Burr Blodgett, Denis Gabor and Clifford Paterson medals and prizes.)

For small businesses, winning one of the new start-up awards from the IOP would be a serious risk-reduction factor for potential investors. It would be a sign that the company’s physics and technology have been examined by an expert judging panel of serious and experienced physicists. With the IOP’s stamp of approval on your technology, persuading someone to plough their money into your business would suddenly be a whole lot easier.

I can imagine a conversation with an investor running something like:

“Well our product is based on this principle and we recently won an IOP start-up award.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me about that…”

The start-up award is, if you like, a quality seal for your product and validates that the physics and its implementation is sound and that the business concept has merit. Apart from improving the confidence that future investors and customers will have in your company and product, the award could also pave the way for future funding, give you constructive feedback from seasoned business leaders on the judging panel, and raise the profile of your firm and its products.

The meaning of success

Dyed-in-the-wool academics might find all this talk about profile-raising and marketing a little grubby, but it’s true that if no-one knows about your technological innovation, no-one will buy it or buy into it. So the opportunity to showcase your product at a reception in the Houses of Parliament, as the IOP innovation-award winners get to do, is an invaluable way for you to network with funding agencies, senior industrialists and politicians.

The winning firms are also invited to the IOP awards dinner, get highlighted on the IOP’s marketing and social media, get to speak at relevant IOP meetings, and take part in our new business innovation and growth group. Now, none of this will ­guarantee that everything else will work out, as there are many other hurdles to jump over to reach that nirvana state of “successful”, which in itself takes on many forms. Should you judge a business’s success in terms of its growth, turnover, exports, profits or social impact?

Like beauty, commercial success is in the eye of the beholder. But an IOP start-up award will certainly help.

The closing date for entering this year’s IOP business innovation awards is 18 May – see here for more details.

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