The life cycle of a research idea
Research and development is, in many ways, very close to the traditional TV-shopping business. About one in a hundred products or ideas actually work, and all possible circus acts are performed to secure funding. In the end, guarantees come afterwards. Doesn’t sound familiar? The egg sticks to the frying pan and the multi-function exercise machine takes all weekend to fit under the bed and, in addition, falls apart under a body-positive customer. After a week’s use, the steam mop has caused water damage, while the aroma nest is mostly fit for a helmet during hockey in the garden. What about those research products, then?
Understanding it fully requires a closer look at the research life cycle. Whereas the TV shopping channel products disintegrate in your hands, a research project is practically impossible to kill. More about this in the end, along with a practical example of the natural but painful death of research.
Ideas. They are formed to respond to a need or shortage. Ideas have customarily been protected through patenting. Patents are a good way to familiarize oneself with bad ideas. 99% of patents are completely unutilized. 99% of the rest is simply done as a nuisance. These figures are not based on statistics.
Development. Depending on the topic, this takes a few to ten years. Whereas an idea is hardly marked by a price, its development starts to generate costs. This is also fertile ground for the reaper: no money means death. Of course, certain instances resurrect killed ideas, which seek to wander around as zombies. Telling these apart from living ideas may sometimes be a challenge.
Demonstration. This is a rare treat in research. It is a stage that is rarely reached and even less often involves things functioning. And that is not the point of this stage – it is better to make all mistakes on a smaller scale. Whereas the previous stage yields mostly bitter researchers, this stage results in also junk in the form of different pilot appliances.
Deployment. It is all too late now, and the researcher must, at this point, let the idea go. Fingers crossed that the ramp-up does not take ten years and the company’s finances.
Since a major elimination process is the only way to maintain research areas that are challenging enough, killing the presented ideas at all stages is of utmost importance. Small ideas in the early phase often see a painless elimination in companies’ own evaluation processes. The following stage sees ideas being destroyed by public investors. In the demonstration stage, the execution begins to resemble a medieval market event, with several other companies aiding in the elimination process. The last stage involves responsibility being shifted to the investor or venture capitalist.
Now follows a brief instruction for a responsible kill.
First symptoms of the research’s challenges. Chest pain. The reliability evaluation of results is faulty, and the results are not statistically valid. On average, however, they appear to be good. Regretfully often, this patient is returned to the project, with the treatment continued.
The profitability calculation appears weak. Ventricular fibrillation. According to calculations based on test results, the repayment period is too long, and key figures do not support continuing. At this point, environmental effects, an unrealistically positive market outlook and uncertainty in sensitivity analysis are often brought up. Enthusiasm is high, and a terminally ill idea may yet end up going forth, even if end-of-life care would be the correct solution.
Feasibility is ready, and the grim reaper is already on the doorstep. Pneumonia and spasms. At this stage, the child has often become too dear to be killed. The journey towards an investment decision continues in blindness, even though an electric chair or razorblade would be the correct solution.
Where is the research and project? Nowhere. It is dead and buried, and hopefully, the company hasn’t been lost along the way. Meanwhile, the researcher jumps out of the morgue window. May they rest in peace.
Enthusiastic and full of ideas? Let’s develop them together.
Chief Research Officer
Finnish Minerals Group