Can Information Lead Us to the Land of the Unicorns?

Unicorns! Those beautiful, magical creatures with single horns that live in deep, exclusive forests are depicted as being as alluring as they are rare.

In the real world of researchers, entrepreneurs, and technology enthusiasts, billion dollar "unicorn companies" are just as rare. In fact, only a handful of them stand proudly at the summit of the commercialization mountain, representing the pinnacle of the magical evolution of commercialization success.

How do unicorns come to be?

While many research and development (R&D) institutions pride themselves on the number of "unicorn" founders they have produced, the achievement of any level of commercialization success is highly commendable. This success does not only require a mixture of academic research, business innovation, and supportive investors, but very often the balancing act of idealistic thinking and the realities of what it takes to fill the gap between a promising idea and one that is successfully implemented at the market level.

The balancing act of success – with or without a unicorn.

First and foremost, to achieve any level of commercial success, a researcher must consciously have a desire to make real-world impact. The orthodoxy of viewing an academic publication as a research end-point has left many promising and potentially cutting-edge technologies at their embryonic stages. For some researchers, this myopic way of operating is driven by the pressure to achieve academic tenure, while for others there is simply no interest in pursuing a path that is long, arduous, and rife with pressure and failure.

For those who dare to venture along the path to commercialization however, the rewards can be astronomical though not available on the cheap. Having a clear understanding of the complexity of the process is an excellent starting point, and perhaps a necessity in trying to avoid commercialization suicide. The fact is, after all, that R&D commercialization requires funding, and to obtain funding an R&D organization must be well equipped with the relevant knowledge that would allow them to effectively identify and compete for this funding.

Providing knowledge and connections: a NEEP workshop.

NEEP recently held a workshop where we asked researchers and funders in the energy efficiency field to answer the question of what mechanisms should be put in place to create more successful pathways towards R&D commercialization. While many responses included very practical answers like simplified contracting mechanisms, match-making events, curated deal flows, and public-private incubators, it was evident that there is a real hunger for more information.

Researchers thought that information on industry needs, how funders prioritize applications, new energy efficiency technologies, and best practices of successful R&D ecosystems would bring much needed clarification of the R&D commercialization process.

As a not-for-profit organization that facilitates collaboration, education, and enterprise amongst states in the Northeast, NEEP is well positioned to take a leadership role in addressing this information gap. As a matter of fact, NEEP can take it a bit further by encouraging states to collaborate with each other and share information on the commercialization of energy efficiency technologies.

After all, teaming up for success is such an organic, painless process right? Wrong! In a research culture where collaborations are rarely mentioned as being virtuous, a psychological intervention may be necessary. There is a real risk that the promotion stakes will be lost to those whose pursuit of excellence comes regardless of the cost to others. This is where a famous quote by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg comes in handy. He said, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

Making unicorns more ordinary.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s words highlight another very important point other than the benefits of taking risk - which is - the rapid rate at which change is taking place in the world. This pace of change constructs hypercompetitive business environments in which corporations need more innovative products to grow their market shares around the world. With this increased focus on R&D, it is not surprising that these corporations seek out technology unicorns with the hope that their magical capabilities will give them the competitive edge.

The fact is - in today’s world there is a huge need for high impact, cutting-edge technologies, but the path from fledgling ideas to commercialization success is not clear to most. Addressing the knowledge gaps will not guarantee that every passionate researcher will become a success, but it will bring clarity which can ensure that the commercialization dream stays alive, and the path to the unicorns becomes visible to all.

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