‘Negative know-how’, one way to make money from so-called failure — KiwiNet

By Peter Kerr 17/05/2012

‘Negative know-how’ was a fantastic idea thrown up at the KiwiNet commercialisation forum in Wellington on May 2.

Kate Wilson was talking to about 100 people actively trying to kick university or CRI ideas into life.

It refers to keeping records of so-called ‘failure’ in research and development. It may be notes of what was technically difficult, impossible or not very successful.

Wilson, of patent attorneys James & Wells, says such a record can actually be a saleable product — especially to those working in the same field, who can save themselves time and money by NOT repeating what’s been shown to be not useful.

But in the line of reframing the idea of failure, negative know-how is a powerful term.

The KiwiNet university and CRI commercialisers were also given a reminder (as if they didn’t realise it anyway) of the mindset(s) that researchers will often have. Whereas someone who is trying to figure how to turn an idea into something of (commercial) value might think in days or weeks, some researchers have a much longer timeframe — years even.

As Prof Alison Stewart says too (having had 20 years successful and less so experience in commercialising science) told attendees, when she’s briefing researchers about to engage with industry she reminds them — what, why and how.

The big picture, particularly from an industry (in her particular case innovative and natural plant bio-protection) needs to be kept in mind by scientists — the what and why — before they jump to the how….which is the science experiment itself.

Too often Stewart says, recently graduated PhD’s are thrown into the deep end of a research project for an outside client; when these are the very people who should be nurtured and guided through the whole process.

A simple management strategy is very helpful in this case she says — in particular the maintenance of an accurate laboratory book, and monitoring progress against commercial milestones.

‘Researchers also need to be taught how to talk the talk,’ when they’re in discussions with industry clients Prof Stewart says.

In identifying valuable intellectual property, the before-mentioned Kate Wilson says there’s four categories of competitive advantage:

  • Knowledge
  • Function
  • Look
  • Brand

Sometimes scientists will almost have to be ‘interrogated’ by commercialisers — ‘often they don’t know what they’ve got or how to communicate it.’

One of the more effective techniques Wilson says, is to ask a researchers why they’ve bothered to do a particular piece of work?

‘Then you need to pause,’ she says. That silence, that answer is often ‘when the breakthrough occurs.’

If there was one observation of what might help improve the quantum of commercialisation from KiwiNet members, it was from a couple of non-New Zealanders.

Both Anthony Francis of Flinders Partners (of Flinders University, South Australia), and Duncan Ledwith of UniServices/The Icehouse, had that salesman come dealmaker aspect to how they viewed converting an idea into a product.

After some hard and fast market validation, their attitude was simply to let people (preferably with a vested interest in the gig) get on with it.

Don’t get too worked up about IP ownership, just get on with it as hard and fast as possible!

0 Responses to “‘Negative know-how’, one way to make money from so-called failure — KiwiNet”

  • I do not understand the sentence “That silence, that answer is often “when the breakthrough occurs.””. Is it supposed to mean “During that silence, or while trying to answer that, is often “when the breakthrough occurs.” ?

    I assume that by “salesman come dealmaker” you mean “salesman-cum-dealmaker” ?

    • My understanding of what Kate is talking about is…..when the question is asked, a silence may follow……then the (often) scientist reveals the nugget of truth, the crux of what they’re doing, and where there may be value (from a commercial point of view).

      Thank you for the clarification on the salesman-cum-dealmaker aspect…..talking to my colleagues, you’re absolutely correct.


  • This is one of the problems with the way science is published in journals. Most journals deal with what worked, not what didn’t work. Most ‘methods’ sections are only half the truth – specifically, the half that worked. They miss out the fact that they blew up three sets of apparatus, set the fire alarms off, kept the material at the wrong temeperature, caused three months of stress for a PhD student, etc. All that never gets formally documented. Then of course a piece of work which never ends up working out never gets formally reported at all. That said, working in industry was rather better in this regard – there failed attempts did get reported on in the same way that successful attempts did.

    • I wonder too Marcus how often research gets repeated in New Zealand (and other places for that matter), because only what worked is reported? When you were (are?) in industry, was ‘failure’ regarded as valuable?

  • There are other reasons for keeping good records of your mistakes as well.

    Taking time to find the right solution, actually makes that solution all the more valuable for potential purchasers/licensees. The ‘solution’ represents R&D resource that they do not have to set up and do themselves.

    Plus from a patent perspective, a simple elegant solution can be shown to be patentable if you can show what was tried and didn’t work. Quite often the size of the inventive step is reflected in how hard it was to get to an answer.