The Covid-19 pandemic appears to change who’s in the lead in setting the course of innovation. Innovation has been very much driven by the forces of the free market, which determine whether or not a new product or service will be profitable and thus provide a reward for the risk and investment of the innovator. For deep tech, the startup model is the dominant model for crossing the so-called valley of death, which all deep-tech innovations have to go through in order to find the right product/market combination. Going from concept and functional model to profitable product typically takes two decades, with course adjustments and significant investments from mostly private parties needed along the way.
A good example of such a journey is the introduction of microfluidic biosensors for so-called point-of-need testing of diseases and medical conditions. At the moment, I’m involved in setting up a roadmap for the introduction of such sensors based on integrated photonics at Photondelta. My earliest interaction with them was as a department head at the former Philips Research organization, the Natlab. There, at the end of the nineties, we set up several major projects based on our capabilities in and breakthrough ideas about materials and processing. Research projects into flexible or electrowetting displays, organic electronics, printable devices and wearable devices were started. Also, a project on microfluidic biosensors was initiated, with detection based on magnetic nanobeads.
When I left the Natlab to focus on R&D of electron microscopes, I lost sight of the biosensor project. Occasionally, I saw updates of the tortuous route that it had taken in finding the right applicational angle. Later, I learned that it was transferred to Philips Medical Systems, where further significant investments were poured into the product development of these sensors. For strategic reasons, it was passed on to Siemens Healthineers, which I assume will bring the product to market in the not too distant future. This innovation route spanning two decades is characteristic for deep-tech innovation.
Now, it’s extremely poignant to realize that had cheap, fast, sensitive and specific point-of-need Covid-19 tests been available on a wide scale half a year ago, history would have taken a different turn. Millions of lives would have been saved, societal progress would not have been set back.
For many, this is a wake-up call to change the way innovation is driven. If governments would proactively have poured a fraction of the trillions of euros lost to the pandemic into development of among others diagnostic tests, the world would be in a much better place. Let’s learn that lesson and have governments take the lead in innovation, starting with that looming catastrophe of climate warming, people say. The examples from war time situations (eg the Manhattan project) and rich autocratic surveillance states appear to support this idea.
My own experience has taught me that putting government directly in charge is not the answer and is bound to lead to significant waste. History has given us enough examples for that, like nuclear fusion or manned space exploration. For societies to be prosperous, as well as equal and free, governments need to focus on creating the right circumstances, not be directive in innovation. Massive investment in science and technology for the prevention of pandemics and climate warming is warranted. However, innovation based on the outcome of this must continue to be driven by the forces of the market, within the boundary conditions set by the government.