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Here at Cambridge, where there’s revolutionary research going on in many departments, academics are very familiar with explaining their work to other researchers. Many researchers, however, also want their work to improve the world.
An essential first step toward achieving that impact is being able to explain one’s work to non-specialists and to convey why it’s exciting. To do this, researchers need to answer a central question: “What are the positive differences—or benefits—the research can make for this external audience?”
As part of my role at Cambridge Enterprise, I attend a large variety of research based events. It’s exciting to hear so many different researchers talk about their work. As I listen, however, I’m often mentally translating the ‘features’ they are describing to potential ‘benefits’.
As someone whose role is to facilitate commercialisation, I look at research the way someone outside of the University would. This means I might ask questions that, to researchers, may be unfamiliar. One of these is about the benefits of research.
Researchers are great at explaining details and advances or features of their work. Typically they focus on this in presentations. While fascinating, such presentations don’t answer the question, “What are the benefits of this technology to society?”
The easiest way to start thinking about benefits is to list everything that is good about the idea. Then mark each thing as either a feature (something that the idea does or has) or a benefit (an argument for the use of this approach instead of another one). Often this exercise yields only a list of features.
The next step is to extrapolate the benefits from these features. Why would someone switch to using this new approach from the existing one? Remember that new products are often more expensive when they first come to market, so the case needs to be compelling. Ultimately, why should someone care about the approach when they have another way of achieving the same goal?
A good example of this is a technology that is now part of one of our spin-out companies, 8power. The academic initially brought us a new energy harvester design that uses ‘waste’ vibrational energy from the environment more efficiently. This is a feature of the invention. To work out the related benefits one has to answer the question: who might need an efficient energy harvester that uses vibrational energy and why?
As with many of the technologies we work on, the energy harvester has many potential applications. The initial application was for bridges where traditionally structural integrity is monitored by periodic inspection. The problem that needs solving is how to economically monitor bridges for breakdown more frequently so that problems can be picked up early and resolved before they become very costly to fix or endanger lives.
Monitoring vibration can provide this insight. Simultaneously using the vibration as the source of power for a self-contained sensor that can operate for long periods, without battery changes, would be highly attractive. But only some structures vibrate enough to provide power levels high enough to compete with batteries, and so the company is also developing battery and solar power to allow it to serve the bridge monitoring market, while also developing other markets where vibration is more readily available.
The question of the true benefit of this technology in this application is still open to debate, however. Is it safer bridges or is it the lower cost of monitoring the bridges for safety? This highlights an important aspect of describing the benefits of a technology. What you say often depends on who you are talking to. The organisation responsible for bridge monitoring will almost certainly say the benefit is the cost saving. The ordinary commuter driving over the bridge will wholeheartedly say it is the safer bridge.
Getting to the crux of why someone should care about a new idea is right at the heart of communicating well with external organisations. Being able to identify and articulate the benefits of a new approach is the key thing that commercial partners and investors are looking for. Honing this skill dramatically increases your chances of success, whether you are searching for industrial collaborators, increasing impact or starting your own company.