CERN – Shortening the research to innovation lifespan

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – better known as CERN – is not only a place where researchers probe the structure of the universe. It is developing a new innovation model leading to a US$1.1 billion proposal that it hopes will be in operation by 2020, to bring companies, students and scientists together in multiple ‘ideas’ sites and draw on research infrastructure to generate a shorter research-to-innovation lifecycle.

“We are now gearing up and will be in full swing by 2020,” said Dr Markus Nordberg, head of resources development of the development and innovation unit at CERN, at an international conference co-hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association in Johannesburg from 10-14 May.

“The key point is that we hope to use research infrastructure in a more effective way, without compromising the research mission, by bringing in small- and medium-sized companies and researchers and young students from universities to places like IdeaSquare – except we will multiply IdeaSquares all over the place.”

The IdeaSquare concept, aimed at nurturing innovation at CERN, was developed by Nordberg and a colleague Marzio Nessi, and its building was inaugurated last December.

In an ideas environment, brilliant research and business minds are given funding and other support and are encouraged to develop good ideas that are useful for society and inspired by CERN’s detector and research and development projects.

“There are models that are very similar to this, but what we think is new is the way we bring in industry, and public funding plus private capital. You’re going to see an innovation life cycle of research that will be shorter, plus generate new industrial developments and job opportunities for young students.”

The backdrop

The process of innovation from basic research has essentially four sets of actors, Nordberg told an open innovation session at the conference, which had the theme “Research and Innovation for Global Challenges”.

“You have the researchers, you have the innovation experts or enablers who help in the process of moving ideas from research to industry, then you have the business players – industry and investors – and of course the end users of the byproduct of research.”

The history of innovation showed that science did create great innovations, but usually with a long time lag, he said. Industry had been very interested in seeing whether the innovation life cycle could be shortened.

In literature, said Nordberg, there are usually three roles given to industry when it comes to the innovation cycle.

First, research is considered the engine, with industry providing the components or services that scientists need or building their offices or cafes or whatever. Second, there is the use of research resources and infrastructures, and third, there is the assumption of management.

“But why do we limit this to only three roles? Can’t we be a little more imaginative?” he asked. “Why could we not integrate business people into the entire process from the very beginning – let’s say, upgrade them to the status of scientists, as co-developers or co-innovators not sub-contractors.

“That suggests some sort of collaborative model, rather than a buyer-supplier relationship.”

“Let’s play the game a little further. What if we would then implant into this process – it already has scientists, and now industry – young students. There are plenty of universities offering entrepreneurship or innovation programmes that have students who would benefit.

“All of this sounds jolly good, if slightly off the wall. It does suggest that there needs to be a new funding model, and this is what we are trying to test at CERN.”


The IdeaSquare facility, Nordberg continued, “is just a hangar with old shipping containers. These shipping containers each have a scientific project that is useful for us – it is detector-related or sensor-related research and development – and these guys are developing scientific instruments that are useful for CERN.

“What we do is invite universities with masters-level students in business administration, product design, engineering, architecture and so on, and we literally stick these students into the containers and lock the door, scientifically-speaking, and wait for the breakthrough. OK, there is a more detailed process and it is not as brutal as that, but you get the picture.”

The only requirement to take part in IdeaSquare is to have an idea worth nurturing. Projects are supported after consultation with all parties involved including CERN management and experiments.

Out of the scientifically driven process, in half a year there emerged two good examples of innovation. One is a virtual reality project in which students have developed a tool for teaching autistic children, based on technology used in detectors at CERN. The project is a collaboration between CERN and the Italian university UNIMORE.

“Another project is checking the status of the pumps that feed liquid helium into our super-conducting accelerator. The students figured out that it was also a handy way of listening to industrial plants, to see if there are pieces that will fail in a few hours or weeks or months.

“I’m told that one of our students has got involved with Rolls Royce and they are using these tools. So you’re sitting on the plane and it might comfort you to know that Rolls Royce is actually listening to the plane, which sends information directly to its maintenance unit.”