To innovate is to survive: making the case for business research.
“The man of a thousand patents” – that’s what they call Jacques Lewiner, honorary scientific director of top science and engineering school ESPCI Paris Tech, physicist and successful entrepreneur. A mould-breaker who has worked all his life to promote accessible research, he says that businesses simply cannot opt out of investing in R&D.
Disruptive innovation: a life or death matter for businesses
“You can’t invent a lightbulb by trying to improve a candle”
“To innovate is to survive” says Jacques, drawing a parallel between business research and the evolutionary theory. He adds: “It is important to draw a clear distinction between incremental innovation and disruptive innovation. The first improves an industry, while the second changes it forever”. He believes that French companies are still overly attached to incremental innovation, which holds them back from making major breakthroughs. “You can’t invent a lightbulb by trying to improve a candle. You need to take a new perspective. Americans and Israelis understand this far better than we do.”
“The most successful companies do not punish failure.”
To be disruptive, you have to take risks. How? By embracing the failures that are part of any attempt at discovery. “The most successful companies in R&D do not punish failure.” Jacques also thinks that there needs to be more crossover of cultures in R&D departments. “Life sciences, physics, chemistry… the greatest inventions have from blending several disciplines.” Regarding timing, Jacques warns of the dangers created when companies take a short-term view, as they often do, pursuing inconsistent shareholder strategies and cost-cutting at the expense of research budgets. On patents, he makes the point that: “On average, fewer than one out of every ten research projects, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector, will lead to an invention that is then turned into a commercial success. Businesses shoulder huge risks, so it is right that they should protect themselves on the globalised market by patenting their innovations”.
Bringing business into the halls of academia
Jacques is disappointed that public/private initiatives are so patchy in France. To illustrate his point, he cites an indicator tracking revenues generated by university incubators. “Cumulative ten-year revenues generated by the starts-ups established by universities are typically around €100 million, even in the case of big name schools. At ESPCI Paris Tech, we have broken the €1.4 billion mark, but that is tiny particularly compared to US universities, even though they are not teaching or researching to a higher standard than we are.”
“As if research shouldn’t be sullied by business”
Jacques blames France’s intelligentsia and its out-of-touch vision of research. “When I was starting out, people thought I was weird because I wanted to show off my inventions at trade fairs for electronic components rather than at physics conferences. As if research was something so sacred that it shouldn’t be sullied by business. He also points the finger at archaic regulations, which long prevented researchers from sitting on corporate boards. While things have changed since the 2000s, both on the legal front and in terms of mentalities, he knows that there is still some way to go. “When I speak with my students completing their studies in the USA, it is not unusual to hear them say that they are thinking about working in a start-up run by their thesis director. Once we start to hear this sort of thing from our French students, we can say that we have changed the mindset.” Jacques suggests that, in addition to the research contracts that are typically given by industrial firms to research centres, partnerships between companies and universities could build bridges and, by blending cultures, make breakthrough innovations more likely.
Research is a pillar of the cosmetic industry
“A real role in society: to make people happier and more comfortable with their bodies”
He has lots to say about the issues facing the cosmetic industry of tomorrow. “The challenges are considerable. It is a key sector at the crossroads of several disciplines, including biology, chemistry and physics, and plays a real role in society by making people happier and more comfortable with their bodies.” Jacques cites a few big challenges. Creating better solar filters to protect people more effectively against UV rays is one. Male hair regrowth using stem cells from hair follicles is another. The arrival of sol-gel technology in L’Oréal products offers a way to recreate a structure within damaged hair. Jacques sees this last development as an example of a truly disruptive innovation.
“Innovation and disruption go together”.
Jacques says that innovation in cosmetics needs to rely on two things. First, research within companies has to take a long-term perspective, avoiding too great a focus on short-term projects. Second, he suggests looking into start-ups, which are increasingly going act as innovation drivers. Connected objects are a good example: “Start-ups such as Withings are offering connected health products. I can see these concepts being transposed to cosmetics in the near future”.
Jacques gives a final example of an innovative product developed through academic research and implemented by a start-up firm. It works by encapsulating active ingredients in a tiny envelope that vanishes when the cosmetic product is applied to the skin. CAPSUM, the company that leads the world in this area, uses a quote by Jacques as its slogan: “Innovation and disruption go together”. “The chairman and co-founder of CAPSUM is an ESPCI Paris Tech alumnus. He could not offer me a finer gift. It just goes to show that ties between the public and the private spheres will always be forged one way or another.”