Valorization of research: are patents and business creation really synonymous with success?
Your research institute has just published the latest figures on its research transfer strategy!
You observe the number of patents filed and start-ups created with pride.
Then you remember the climate crisis, growing social divisions and the recent health crisis. Doubt assails you.
Are you quite sure that these patents and these companies will withstand the crises to come? Or even better, provide answers? Can valorization services still focus solely on their economic returns?
What if a “good” valorization is not what we think?
Valorization: an economic vision of the world
When we work in the world of research valorization, we have in mind first and foremost the economic question. Nothing more normal! After all, that is what valorization is all about.
Valorization of research is described as “the transformation of fundamental knowledge into new commercial products and services”  or the means of “making the results, knowledge and skills of research usable or marketable”. At the European level the vision is similar.
In 2016, I was mobilized by the European Commission to assess European research policies in terms of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). I focused on the involvement of various stakeholders in funded research and innovation projects. Among my findings:
- the transformation of research into innovations (therefore valorization) concerned more than 90% of “academy – business” relations
- in 80% of cases, the “academy – non-market civil society” relationship never went beyond the debate. As if the transition to innovation was limited to the merchant circuit.
At all levels, the valorization process focus on economic results, real hardships. And the partners envisaged are reduced to companies.
Of course, it is not because the main attention is focused on the economic question that social and environmental issues are absent. On the contrary, there is not a strategic document that does not highlight them. However, the reflection on their subject is anecdotal. The content of the valorization work does not change in their light.
Let’s do a little exercise:
- choose a French research institute
- take 5 minutes to find the number of patents he co-owns
- take all the time necessary to find the number of beneficiaries of its valuation
It was not an easy exercise!
If it is an impossible mission, it is because the social and environmental issues are mentioned without being seriously integrated into the objectives to be achieved. The best way to be convinced of this is to ask yourself: what objectives are quantified? What is ultimately measured?
I was recently preparing a training course for the CEA on the integration of societal issues in the response to European calls for projects. By going to the websites of 3 major French research institutes (CEA, CNRS and INRAE), I found exactly the same indicators for measuring the success of valorization:
- number of patents
- number of start-ups created
- number of joint laboratories with companies
No mention of the major social and environmental challenges appears in the quantified results. This may seem anecdotal. Yet what is not measured will not be tracked or improved. Some will say that measuring social and environmental impacts is too complex! You might as well stick to monetary information, which is easy to count and compare.
“Can we deduce the societal impact of a project from its economic impact?” This question was asked to me more than once by development officers during my training.
Let’s take a concrete example that shows that this approach is limited: a waste-to-energy project on a farm.
Let’s assume that the technical device makes it possible to settle directly on the farm. Technological constraints will influence the economic dimensioning of the solution. The economic formula that will work for a given technology will define the type of beneficiaries having access to it. For example, it may take a farmer with a minimum number of hectares for the solution to be profitable. In a classic vision of valorization, you can find a direct link between the economic question and the societal question. By calculating my market (economic dimension), I can access my number of beneficiaries (social dimension). And even why not, to the tonnage of waste recycled into energy (environmental dimension). However, this approach is limited. Social impact stems from economic thinking, not the other way around. Economic success is not necessarily synonymous with societal success.
Measure what matters
You are probably wondering: do you really have to go through this? The path seems strewn with pitfalls, and very few organizations know how to measure societal impact.
Wondering if it’s worth it? The innovation director of a major European research institute even told me: “We don’t measure it but we do it, because it is the most important impact for us!” Other variants exist: “It happens naturally” “It is obvious” or “There is no need to force it because that is why the research exists”.
It may be my scientific background talking, but I find it hard to believe that we decide not to measure what matters most. Especially when the indicators exist!
Take the case of Nutriset.
This company was created with a very clear social mission: to end hunger in the world. All of its activities serve this mission. The promotion of research does not cut it! In partnership with the IRD, the company has revolutionized the humanitarian sector. In 1996, it launched the first ready-to-use nutrient paste (Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food or RUTF) on the market. I can tell you about its patents, its intellectual property strategy (which it puts at the service of its social mission!), its research partnerships or its turnover. But the company uses another indicator of success that is too rarely found. Nutriset has 10 million beneficiaries. 10 million people saved from starvation thanks to the company R&D and products.
This approach to research impact is becoming more widespread. In the new European research funding programme, Horizon Europe, each project must explain in detail and relevance its “path to impact”. This impact is not only economic or scientific: it includes the social and environmental impact. Obviously, these impacts must be measurable.
To take the case of Nutriset, new indicators can be a real measure of success. 10 million people saved from starvation is still more inspiring and useful than 3 patents and 1 start-up created, isn’t it?
Implementing this work of identifying beneficiaries is possible: this is what the social entrepreneurship sector has been doing for almost 30 years.
Another valorization is possible
Of course, to obtain good results on these new criteria, you will also have to modify your practices. When we are no longer looking for the same result, when performance no longer has the same face, jobs change accordingly.
This is what Assis de Souza shows in his article “A Conceptual Proposal for Responsible Innovation”. In this article, responsible innovation is compared to traditional innovation. The author shows that each building block of classic innovation finds its counterpart in responsible innovation. All the bricks are kept. In both models there is an ethical reflection, technological locks, economic impacts, consideration of stakeholders, etc. And depending on the model, these bricks do not cover the same thing, nor the same way of doing your job.
The deontological ethics of traditional innovation gives way, in responsible innovation, to an ethics of virtues and purposes. The context (country, sectors, competitors) moves from the backdrop to an active part of the innovation process. The management of economic risk becomes a management of resource and pollution risk, inclusiveness and acceptability. Beyond the quality and security of traditional innovation, the well-being is also covered by responsible innovation. Traditional innovation anticipates the next legal norms. Responsible innovation anticipates desirable futures.
At SoScience, we also insist on the fact that the results of responsible innovation are more likely to lead to “social” companies, that is to say companies whose primary objective is the social impact or environmental. Traditional innovation leads instead to traditional businesses.
Moving from traditional innovation to responsible innovation does not mean destroying the fundamental bricks of the innovation process. These are the same bricks that must gain new meaning and within which practices evolve.
Going from economic valorization to social and environmental valorization is exactly the same thing! At each stage of the process (R&D, prototyping, contracting, industrialization), new ways of thinking and new players enrich the process.
📣 Are you interested in these practices? Find my live from April 1, 2022 on the topic
 Laperche, B. (2002). Le carré organique de la valorisation de la recherche: Le cas d’une jeune université dans un contexte de crise. Politiques et gestion de l’enseignement supérieur
 French National Council for the Evaluation of Higher Education