Often, we draw a demarcation line between basic and applied researches. It’s a common understanding that industry is after quick profit through the subtle touch of available technologies. Mainly, we often think that Japanese companies are succeeding through reengineering, imitation, and incremental innovation. But the winning of Nobel prize by Japanese in Transistor, Light Emitting Diode, and Lithium-ion Battery gives us a different lesson. As opposed to the curiosity of scientists working in universities and government laboratories, the profit-making mission of firms has led to these successes. They have given us a lesson that relentless journey of perfection of commercial products leads to even Nobel prize-winning scientific discovery. Moreover, such a relentless journey of fueling creative waves of destruction, offering us better products at a lower cost, also makes good use of major scientific discoveries.
Japan’s success in winning a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, particularly in Physics and Chemistry, deserves investigation to draw lessons. In fact, 15 Japanese received Nobel Prizes in these two subjects during the first two decades of the 21st century. More importantly, many of these Nobel prize winning scientific discoveries are the output of research programs directly linked to the journey of perfecting commercial products. Japan’s such successes offer several lessons.
The first one is that as opposed to top-down, knowledge discovery may have a bottom-up approach. The other one is that quality scholarly outputs may originate from the journey of making industrial products profitable success stories. Particularly, developing countries should draw a lesson to allocate their limited scholarly resources. Instead of engaging their academic community to pursue basic research, having no focus on products, for enriching publications, rather, the focus should be on advancing industrial value addition out of academic research.
Linking scientific discoveries, technology Inventions, and a creative wave of destruction
Often, we think that innovation is a linear process. Basic research produces scientific discoveries, which leads to technological inventions and commercial innovations. It has been found that only a small fraction of knowledge discovered through curiosity-driven basic research has contributed to industrial innovations. Moreover, there is often a very high time lag between such discoveries and commercial exploitation. On the other hand, we often isolate technological innovations from scientific research, particularly basic research pursued by the academic community. However, there are different types of innovation. The relevance of scientific discoveries to them also varies.
One of the innovations is known as a creative wave of destruction. Instead of relying on creative sparks in the minds of genii, deliberate attempts are taken to change the technology core of products. As opposed to curiosity or advancing knowledge, the profit-making motive is at the core of such deliberate attempts. For example, Sony ventured into the mission of changing the technology core of radio and TVs in the 1950s. Sony also took the radical step to change the technology core of the camera. Similarly, a commercial interest took the lead of changing the technology core of the light bulb. As opposed to incremental advancement, the purpose has been to fuel creative waves of destruction.
Sometimes, curiosity-driven basic research often provides the lead to embark on the idea of changing the technology core. For example, the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories created an opportunity. It inspired Sony to profit from it by changing the technology core of Radios and also TVs. Similarly, the Nobel Prize-winning discovery led to the invention of producing electrons out of photons. Subsequently, it led to Sony’s initiative to change the technology core of the camera.
Weak technology core demands relentless journey of perfections—even leads to Nobel prize-winning discoveries
Invariably, the decision to change the technology core is taken at a an early stage. The technology itself remains in the embryonic form. For example, in 1952, transistor technology at the age of five was extremely in a poor state. The transistor radio was, basically, a toy. It was no way comparable to vacuumed tube-based radio. Similarly, in 1969, Nobel Prize-winning 8×8 image sensor was extremely primitive. On the other hand, in 1980s, LED light bulbs even could not produce acceptable white light, let alone being able to be a creative wave of destruction to filament or fluorescent light bulbs. Hence, the journey of changing the technology for fueling a creative wave of destruction invariably leads to a relentless journey of perfection. Sometimes, the journeys are so intense that perfection leads to Nobel prize.
Refinement of transistor technology led to huge commercial success and winning Nobel prize
In order to make transistor Radios and TVs superior to vacuumed tube-based ones, Sony needed to improve the transistor technology itself, by many folds. In addition to producing primitive pocket radios, Sony undertook serious R&D effort to keep improving the transistor and its production processes until it met the goal. The goal was to make the creative wave of transistor Radios and TVs strong enough to cause destruction to the demand of mature vacuumed tube-based counterparts. Basically, Sony was on a war footing. For winning, Sony needed a continued flow of knowledge and ideas to keep making transistors better and also cheaper. Eventually, Sony succeeded to cause much-desired destruction by the end of the two-decades-long journey.
In addition to products, those product makers, who were busy making them around mature technology core, also suffered from the disruption caused by the creative wave destruction. This deliberate, well-managed journey created a blue ocean opportunity for Sony. At the end, Sony emerged as an innovation icon of Japan. Global consumers, Sony’s investors, and Japan, as a country, tremendously benefited from this relentless journey of perfection, making alternate technology core products far better and cheaper. Finally, in 1974, the scientific community recognized the tremendous contribution of this journey in expanding the knowledge base by awarding a Nobel Peace prize to one of Sony’s R & D team members. Indeed, it is a good example of a journey of perfection that leads to Nobel prize-winning performance.
Refinement of Nobel prize-winning image sensors led to Nobel prize for Lithium-ion Battery
In 1969, George Smith and Willard Boyle invented a semiconductor image sensor known as charged Couple Device (CCD), for which they got a Nobel Peace prize in 2009. After two years of its invention, Sony management decided to change the technology core of the camera with this new technology core—electronic image sensor. This decision was based on profiting from digital camera innovation by creating an entry with a creative wave of destruction. But the technology was extremely primitive in 1971. Like in the past, Sony embarked on a serious refinement journey.
After more than a decade and a half, Sony reached the point of unveiling the commercial product. The target product was a portable video camera. However, Sony faced an insurmountable barrier. The challenge was having a suitable battery to power the camera for hours. Well, Sony took refuge in a premature technology—Lithium-ion Battery. It came out from the scientific works of Professors at Oxford and Stanford Universities.
For fueling the creative wave of digital cameras, Sony desperately needed a more compact and less costly battery. On the other hand, the rising wave of mobile phone handsets started to demand the same. To meet this requirement, Japanese, in in1985, embarked on a long journey of refining this technology core. One of the notable Japanese companies was Asahi Kasei Corporation. It’s lithium battery refinement journey was led by Akira Yoshino. For making this technology useful, through refinement, for serving the critical purpose of the human race, Mr. Yoshino won Nobel Prize in 2020. It’s quite interesting to observe that the journey of perfection leads to Nobel prize-winning discovery.
LED perfection led to Nobel prize-winning for fueling light bulb’s creative wave of destruction
LED was invented by GE in the 1960s. Japanese saw huge profit-making potential in it. To harness it, the challenge was to produce perfect white light. The barrier was the blue LED. Particularly, a small Japanese company Nichia embarked on the journey of perfecting the blue LED. Although Nichia entered into the production of phosphors for fluorescent lamps, in 1966, it saw business opportunity in LED. Subsequently, the company embarked on a journey of causing destruction to its existing fluorescent lamp making phosphor business. Hence, this company started sponsoring research of Shuji Nakamura to keep investigating on gallium nitride light-emitting diodes. Eventually, it led to perfecting blue LED light bulb. Subsequently, the LED light bulb started to grow as a creative wave of destruction to the energy-hungry filament and fluorescent light bulb.
Along the way, Nichia has become the world’s largest supplier of LEDs. And Mr. Nakamura and other two Japanese scientists won the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 for their contribution to perfecting LEDs.
Strategy and policy lesson for developing countries for profiting from knowledge and ideas
Developing countries, with the aspiration to craft a sustained path of growth for reaching high-income country status, must figure out how to add economic value through ideas. Of course, labor-based value addition in high-tech and other manufacturing will not open the path. Even, knowledge-intensive IT service export also does not create the opportunity to keep growing. In addition to the incremental advancement of products and processes, they should also be serious in pursuing a creative wave of destruction by changing the mature technology core of selected products. They should link their academic research, graduate studies, and even undergraduate programs in creating the flow of knowledge and ideas for fueling targeted creative waves of destruction. Invariably, it will require a decade long well-managed approach.
Instead of acquiring generic S&T knowledge and pursuing publication driven academic research, they should focus on pursuing a creative wave of destruction by academic R&D for harnessing commercial interest. Such a journey of perfection may lead to even Nobel prize-winning scientific discoveries. Such a strategy will highly likely create an effective and efficient path of sustained growth for these countries out of knowledge and ideas. However, it does not mean that each of such journeys of perfection leads to Nobel prize winning achievements.