Faculty & Research -From the Laboratory to the Bedside – The Biomedical Black Box of Innovation

From the Laboratory to the Bedside – The Biomedical Black Box of Innovation

It is no trade secret that Innovation is an area where consumers or beneficiaries of a service are consulted more and more for their opinion. Firms and organisations feel an increasing need to test their ideas and get feedback on a product or service from the recipients. This is especially prevalent in the high-tech industry. A more unusual but just as revealing case is that of biomedicine. The input of those receiving care is essential and so is dialogue with those dispensing care and researching new medical innovations. Up to a point…

Any firm or institution delivering a service or product requiring extensive research and testing is faced with the same challenge – how to bridge the gap between the distance research work conducted in the lab and sounding out consumers or service recipients for their opinion, either on an existing or future product or service. This applies in both commercial and non-commercial fields. Within the education sector the scientific work carried out by academics then needs to be dispensed in a more user-friendly format to students via teaching and, in the case of business education, to companies via partnerships or corporate curricular involvement. In more sales-based spheres, online forums are now used extensively by firms to float new ideas or learn about the user experience of existing ones. The medical sector faces a similar but different challenge that offers a cautionary tale when it comes to listening too closely to beneficiaries of a service.

The danger of distraction

The medical profession is an especially interesting case in point, due to the very close proximity of those delivering care versus the potential remoteness of researchers exploring new innovations. In short, three discernible communities exist (scientists, medical practitioners and patients) that are both inextricably linked but distanced at the same time. The question (one which is relevant to any organisation seeking to innovate and test ideas with its customers or service recipients) is whether it is entirely desirable to bridge the gap and run the risk of researchers becoming distracted from the in-the-lab job in hand? Context is the key.

Up until now there has been very little empirical evidence produced of the link between patients and scientific researchers and to what extent bridging or maintaining the gap is effective in the long run for medical innovation. Not only is further empirical exploration of the issue required but also by giving due importance to the institutional context in which researchers are working – a care-oriented one or a set-up more heavily geared towards scientific investigation. As in any business, researchers need to decide how best to invest their time and energy. Although time may not be money in the purely commercial sense, the stakes are just as high – successful innovation resulting in an improved service is just as much a “business” as devising, marketing and selling consumer products. Distraction from a researcher’s core activity comes at a risk.

Putting care into context

A recent study focussing on a large variety of Spanish-based biomedical groups from universities, PROs, hospitals, clinics, and research foundations has sought to test the likelihood of increased or reduced patient contact boosting (or otherwise) the innovation research of scientists. The research-versus-care scenario was applied in all cases to see the impact of institutional context on the results.
Knowing when to take a distance

The findings of the study, although applied within the specific context of the medical profession, provide food for thought for more traditional, sales-oriented businesses. Researchers working within both a care and scientific logic were clearly boosted up to a certain point by patient interaction. However, in both cases, a clear U shape was discernible where, beyond a certain point too much patient contact proved detrimental to their capacity to innovate. The upward curve in research activity was especially sharp for those working within a more science-centric set-up, just as the downturn in activity was also sharper once they had invested too much time in patient care and not enough in their core activity of innovation.
The study underlines two main points about the case of the medical profession, which could very well be extrapolated to other types of product or service development. Innovation is not just about a set of results but also about the process by which these results are obtained, including the institutional organisation and focus of a given company or institution. In addition, they underline the importance of knowing when to stop floating ideas and testing theories with consumers or service recipients and getting down to the main task of innovating, to the benefit of all.


This article draws inspiration from the paper Beneficiary contact and innovation: The relation between contact with patients and medical innovation under different institutional logics, written by Oscar Llopis and Pablo d’Este and published in Research Policy 45 (2016).

Oscar Llopis is an assistant professor at Rennes School of Business, France. His research interests include Innovation Management, Academic Entrepreneurship, Economics of Innovation, Science-industry interactions, and Social network analysis.

Pablo d’Este is a Research Fellow at Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain. His research interests include University-Society Interactions, Knowledge Transfer and Innovation.


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