Science

A matter of the right mix

Innovating with old tech

Ultimately, a smartphone isn’t much more than a camera, calculator, and a touch screen in a plastic casing. They’ve each existed separately for years, but together, they’re considered an innovation. Holmer Kok studied how this phenomenon works.
By Freek Schueler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Illustration by René Lapoutre

You can’t build a cruise ship if you don’t know anything about metal construction. But knowledge about the marine world would also come in handy. And let’s not forget you need to know how to install all the electronics on board. Holmer Kok (27) is getting his PhD in ‘knowledge recombination’: using existing knowledge to create a new product or idea.

Combining knowledge doesn’t automatically lead to new innovations, though. In the early stages of his research, Kok noticed that in many articles, the term ‘knowledge recombination’ was used as a black box: ‘A company forms an alliance with another company, giving them access to certain knowledge. Next, something happens, and innovation takes place.’ Kok tried to find out what this something, this process of how new innovations are created, was.

Asked why this was important, he doesn’t hesitate: ‘By understanding them better, we can figure out where new technology comes from, and how to stimulate new inventions’, Kok explains.

Private class

Kok got the idea when he was doing his research master in economics and business, which he graduated from with honours: ‘I read an article about pharmaceutical companies developing medication for a lot of money, only to leave them on the shelf because there was little demand for it. It seemed like such a waste of money and knowledge to me. I thought that perhaps these ‘dormant technologies’ could actually be quite valuable.’

During his research master, most of Kok’s classes were actually private. His speciality was so unique that year that his professor just invited him to his office for lessons. This had both drawbacks and advantages: ‘I couldn’t show up to class unprepared, since I was the only student. But it was also really useful: it’s how I met my PhD supervisor’, says Kok. For his master thesis, Kok used the same method he would later use for his PhD research. He studied information that was ‘hidden’ in patent applications.

Fuel cell

Just like in scientific articles, patent applications include citations. They are mainly there for legal purposes, but for researchers like Kok, they contain a wealth of information: What kind of technologies are companies developing? And where is their knowledge coming from?

Kok mainly studied patents from the fuel cell industry, an area heavily funded by car companies that are looking for a way to make cars run on hydrogen. The field combines knowledge from electrochemistry and physics, but also from the business world. Kok: ‘Shell, for example, possesses much more knowledge about hydrogen and how to store it than the automotive industry.’

‘We used the fuel cell industry as a setting for our research. After all, we couldn’t gather data on every single industry in the world. The fuel cell industry was a good match with the kind of research we do, because it combines knowledge from many different fields.’

Recombinant Lag

During the first part of his research, Kok concluded that the value of a piece of knowledge, such as how to store hydrogen, not only depends on how old the knowledge is, but also on how long it hasn’t been used. He named the phenomenon recombinant lag. The more the invention is cited in other, new inventions, the higher its value.

‘We figured that a short lag would lead to the most valuable inventions’, Kok says. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Kok continues: ‘Bringing back dormant technologies, inventions that haven’t been used in a long time, can also be valuable.’

Inefficient

For the second part of his research, Kok focused on the collaboration between companies: a company such as Shell combines its knowledge with that of a car company, which leads to a wealth of new knowledge. Kok: ‘These collaborations are essential to innovation but not every organisation has the resources to fully utilise this. Independent companies often succeed just as well as collaboration strategies.’ This is due to, for example, faulty management. ‘When you enter into a collaboration agreement, it’s important that everyone does what they’re supposed to do. It’s inefficient if they don’t.’

It sounds so obvious, and yet it’s not self-evident. Kok: ‘Take the European Union’s HORIZON2000 programmes, for example. They emphasise the benefits of collaboration, and yet there is hardly any dialogue about whether this is even the best solution.’

Sweden

Kok is currently busy working on getting his articles published – he won’t settle for anything less than the best journals, which means he needs to be patient. He hopes to ultimately continue his research in Sweden; he has been offered a job at the Stockholm School of Economics. One of the questions he still wants to answer is where teams that excel at developing great ideas get their information. ‘Is there just one person who contributed everything, or is it a true group effort?’ Perhaps Sweden holds the answers.

Nederlands

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