Answering today’s problems with yesterday’s research
To solve research challenges such as the coronavirus, scientists should take an interdisciplinary approach and explore the potential of past breakthroughs, writes physicist and innovation consultant Gary Proudfoot, PhD.
Today’s hottest topic of all is the coronavirus and it would seem we have to start from scratch to develop vaccines to get us through, but really, has past research nothing else to offer?
In order to apply for a patent, the following simple questions have to be answered: ‘what prior art exists’, and ‘what is the inventive step and why is it needed’.
To many people, only today’s research matters. We have better computing power, more collective intellect, better research capabilities and understanding, and seemingly limitless opportunities. But failure to notice and act on what was learned in the past only leads to repeating old mistakes, while inventing new ones.
The Internet is a massive tool to trawl data and knowledge from the past, once one appreciates that terminology is everything when looking backwards. Get that right and the past starts to offer up its nuggets of gold.
It is through interdisciplinary engagement that societal innovation often emerges, and it is a skill embedded in most technology entrepreneurs.
For the academic, innovation tends to be associated with inspirational science, understanding for understanding’s sake. Incomplete understanding is to be expected and merely points to the need for more research. For the industrial scientist, innovation is to serve a commercial purpose and have societal value.
Time is never a friend if product advantage is to be achieved. Done is better than perfect and it is a rare problem for which there is only one answer and no competitor. Cost-benefit analysis, critical path analysis and decision nodes serve to limit investment risk. If development is to be done, it is highly concentrated and ‘blue sky’ research is to be avoided, while best use is made of pre-existing research.
Terminology presents its own challenge because terminology changes over the years and different disciplines use terminology as their own private code. Research is moving towards narrower and narrower specialisms, and thus the code is becoming harder to follow. Interdisciplinary engagement is often viewed as being too time consuming, and perhaps, irrelevant to the task in hand. But it is through that engagement that societal innovation often emerges, and it is a skill embedded in most technology entrepreneurs.
Often found in a multidisciplinary combination, the value of the gold can be lost unless its complexity can be simplified for those who may have less expertise in these disciplines.
Vaccine development is not new, but alongside it, quietly, unobtrusively and without fanfare, some investigators have taken a broader view and have addressed themselves to simply killing infection.
To find out more, the researcher must return to the principles and objectives of the original work to expose the required terminology. This is the new innovation in the digital world, and it is global. The keyword that may apply in Europe may have no significance in the USA, China or Japan. The terminology of virology may not be the terminology of infection control, or epidemiology or the politician. Often found in a multidisciplinary combination, the value of the gold can be lost unless its complexity can be simplified for those who may have less expertise in these disciplines.
Publication of detailed research is far from the mind of the industrial scientist once the research finds its way into the money-making machine of business. However, that value may not have been so obvious in the past and that’s where you have to look. There is no imperative on the industrial scientist to make it easy for a competitor to follow.
It is critical for any group of specialists to accept that there may be areas where they don’t know what they don’t know.
An integral part of investment in industry is the sanity check. The objective is to ensure that before embarking on a complicated development, you do not fail to find a simpler path. This culture is not new, but with the volume of information now available, it is critical for any group of specialists to accept that there may be areas where they don’t know what they don’t know!
The inventive step is to find a methodology to cover such possibilities in a modern world where there is a mass of information and multitudinous specialisms. This, too, is not new; NASA found a way to go to the moon. They trawled for technology that met their purpose but which was totally unknown to them when they embarked on the journey. They looked to two primary methodologies, the instinctive innovation or why, or the iterative innovation ‘what if’.
The starting point is not to focus only on a medical solution to a medical problem, but to consider a technological solution.
So what if there is a way to kill the coronavirus in the air and reduce its density to a level where transmission and cross infection is seriously reduced? Not the standard disinfection technology, but one using a new airborne deactivating agent.
This technology exists, and is well matched to enclosed public spaces such as hospitals and care facilities. It has been trialled in an intensive care ward at Leeds hospital as far back as 2002. It has been demonstrated to be effective against SARS-Cov-1 and the MERS virus. It has recently been tested against SARS-Cov-2 and found to be better than 99.7% effective.
There are at least three major manufacturers who have been working on this coronavirus killing technology, two of which are household names as global suppliers of consumer electronics and televisions: Sharp Corporation and Panasonic. The research and implementation go back at least twenty years.
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? To find this technology, you need to look to your terminology: ‘deactivation, not killing’, ‘nosocomial rather than close proximity transmission’ and ‘hydroxyl’. Hydroxyl is an incredibly reactive radical and has been being repeatedly studied as an airborne agent to reduce hospital-acquired infection. It has been proven effective against many pathogens including the SARS coronavirus. It is made using a low power atmospheric discharge.
How does anyone find such keywords amidst multidisciplinary development? The starting point is not to focus only on a medical solution to a medical problem, but to consider a technological solution. This is the training needed for the future, so that we can rescue ourselves from generational loss of knowledge, knowledge that may eventually have to be relearned.
Gary Proudfoot, PhD, is an expert in applied plasma technology with over 40 years of experience in the application of low energy plasma discharges to the production of gas phase radicals. He has been the design authority on a number of production and pre-production tools for the deposition of advanced materials for major electronics companies in Europe, the USA and Japan. He now consults on innovation.