Apr 11, 2008
Where do business and science best meet, an apparently simple question with apparently multifarious answers. For instance, chemical industry consultant Hamish Taylor says that they meet, “At the crossroads of human need and scientific curiosity where meaningful breakthroughs can advance human lives, whereas bioinformatician Mark Pitman believes that, “Science and business meet best when they both understand the role of the other party instead of just assuming the role, or at the very least, understanding the assumptions of each side.”
One might say that there is fundamentally a synergistic relationship between science and business, but this relationship relies on there being a shared language. Rajalakshmi Swaminathan, Principal Scientist in Plant Molecular Biology, at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Madras, India, says that, “Most often, scientists do not understand commerce and vice versa.” This communication breakdown is mainly due to the jargon-filled sentences used by both factions that do not necessarily translate. “So far, science and industry have met when the needs are clearly spelt out by industry or when the results from scientific discovery have obvious commercial implications.”
Sarita Chauhan, an intellectual property strategist at DuPont, thinks that science and business are so deeply integrated, or rather infused into each other, that form part of the very fabric of human society and its economics. “But, where science and business is no longer clearly defined,” says Chauhan.
Mark Pitman a self-proclaimed sales and business development guru at Geneva Bioinformatics, explains the overlap differently. “Science is mostly concerned with discovery – you aren’t given grants to discover something someone else already discovered. So there is a huge push to find something, anything, new.” He adds that savvy business leaders should endeavour to understand that researchers don’t have the time or the funding to validate their discoveries. Smart businesses can exploit this to find creative solutions to shared problems coming out of laboratories. “Businesses need to realize that they need to expend the effort to go into the labs, find the solutions they need, and then spend the money to commercialize the solution,” he says.
A database administrator at a major corporation who wished to remain anonymous agreed: “Science and business meet whenever there’s a need to sell science,” he says. “In this era of globalisation, science and business essentially meet anywhere and everywhere. Where science and business meet will have a huge positive impact on society but only if humane values are taken into account too.” Lalith Kishore an Application Scientist at GE Healthcare echoes the humane sentiment in raising the issue of how science can be used and abused. “Nobel’s dynamite was used to build bridges and tunnels but it was used in gory wars too,” he says, Just ask any non-scientific person what he thinks of cloning! The first questions are: Can we make a Hitler clone? Can we create a Frankenstein? Why not “Can we re-create a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King?”
Science and business best meet where the incentives are aligned. Michael Strassberg, President, of NYC-based Hamesh Group, has a great example of this from the biotechnology and pharmacuetical industry. “There is an imperative to invest resources in science that may ultimately result in meeting a business objective – profit,” he explains, “The process of developing a new drug can take between 10 and 15 years and can cost around $800 million but there is no guarantee that the drug will be a success due to the complexity of regulations, adoption by the medical community, and competing drugs.”
Science and business can meet, but other observers, such as Chris Todd a process consultant at Foster Wheeler, suggests that they are mutually exclusive and one becomes the dominant force. “In research, science will prevail over business,” he explains, “but in manufacturing, business with prevail over science.” He qualifies this assertion by pointing out that the underpinnings of the science that drive the business must first define the business opportunity. “In the early stages of a project it may be very science driven until a business case is evolved. At this stage the balance may shift to a business perspective and therefore the meeting point could be described as the point of conception of the business case, he says.
Gerald Lo, Director, Engineering at Nycomed in NYC, posits that the best of science and business are represented in academia, where funding from business can nurture common learning. “Many recipients of advanced degrees seem at a loss to apply their learning, while some who have ties to the industrial community and their areas of specific interest seem to make a more or less sustainable transition between both worlds,” he says. However, he adds that without business, science is mere abstraction while business without science cannot make the transition from abstraction to technology. “The mechanics of industry (service, soft or hard) are inextricably bound up in the manifestations of science, in servers, fibre optics, humble machinery, nuts and bolts, and grease.”
Adrian Petrescu, a Texas-based “Signaller” who hopes to drive innovation by systematically questioning assumptions, suggests that technically science and business don’t meet, they are like the Sun and Moon chasing each other across the sky. However, he adds seriously that, “They have a continuous relationship of mutual support and growth one from the other.” He adds, “Scientific discovery leads to further technological innovation and improvement. Markets and profits as well as nations’ need for military and economic power drive the search for and application of technological innovation.”
But, it is joker Gerry Mann, a senior IT leader at Unitrin Business Insurance, in Texas, who has the last word. Where do science and business best meet?” he asks, “Starbucks. Where else?”
All answers to my initial question – Where do science and business best meet? – can be found here. If you wish to join me on LinkedIn, please send me a non-standard invitation.