Building Scientific Networks for Effective Innovation

A number of academic studies have suggested that in science-driven business sectors, being part of both scientific and commercial networks is crucial to driving innovation. A forthcoming paper in Research Policy, titled “Innovation as Co-Evolution of Scientific and Technological Networks,” makes a detailed examination of how the two worlds overlap and interact. The paper is by Fiona Murray, an assistant professor of management at MIT's Sloan School of Management. The study implies that the scope and nature of the interface can have a strong influence on the innovation process.

Murray's methodology begins by examining a single patented idea in the burgeoning biotechnology field of tissue engineering, then she uses simple patent analysis to create a map of the people and institutions that contributed to the idea. Each patent lists not only the ideas the inventor claims to be new, but also “prior art,” patented ideas that the inventor has built his or her work upon, and “forward citations,” later inventions built on the ideas in the current patent. The patent also cites some of the relevant scientific literature that underpins the commercial work. The study encompassed the detailed analysis of 158 papers and 76 patents, supplemented by in-depth interviews. Murray also explored the characteristics of the two citation networks and to what extent they overlap, and the characteristics of the ties that characterize the overlap. By comparing the individuals and institutions (businesses and universities) in the two networks of the “patent-paper pair,” the study identifies clusters of interconnections and relationships important to both scientific and commercial progress.

The study finds that scientific and commercial progress arise in two distinctive networks — one predominantly scientific, the other a blend of individuals and institutions in science and business. The findings suggest that the links between these two communities are shaped by key scientists who engage in the practices of both, including patenting, consulting, advisory board membership, sponsored research, licensing, joint publication and starting companies. These synaptic activities play a significant role in transforming scientific progress into technical, commercial and health-care benefits. The connections are often seen as singular relationships, says Murray, and are managed in a fragmented way. But, she suggests, a coherent strategy that builds connections in complementary layers is more likely to be effective.

In general, the way a company might engage with the scientific community depends on the stage of the company's development.