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Innovation and the Tech Industry 
January 2022

 

Podcast 5

Innovation and the Tech Industry

January 2022

In this conversation with Dr. Suneel Kunamaneni, we explore the life cycle of a technology innovation, how collaborations accelerate innovations and how companies can look outside for innovation, rather than solely relying on internal capabilities. We also touch upon issues faced by tech entrepreneurs, how companies can engage with them to commercialize ideas, various collaborative methods and their effectiveness. 

Innovation and the tech industryGlobal Electronics Hub Podcast
00:00 / 31:11

“You don't need another new technology. There's enough of existing technologies. What can we actually do is in terms of best use of a bad bargain kind of thing. And create something that is solving people's lives. But at the same time, it's not creating additional problems.” – Dr. Suneel Kunamaneni, Alliance Manchester Business School.

RANJANA: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the next podcast from the Honeycomb Global Electronics Hub.

Today we have with us Dr. Suneel Kunamaneni who was a partner of honeycomb Global in the past. And there's a strong connection there.

So, hi Suneel. Welcome.

SUNEEL: Hi Ranjana, it’s an honour to be here.

RANJANA: I would like to introduce Suneel to our listeners.

 

Suneel Kunamaneni is at the forefront of sustainability and the inclusivity trend with packaging, agrifood and social care. He spent the past 10 years supporting social and eco innovation and entrepreneurship through his various teaching, mentoring, research and consultancy activities.

He has an insatiable interest in sustainable innovation specifically in emerging countries and inclusive growth.

 

And Suneel himself has raised funding from the British Council, from Alternate Packaging Solutions from the Leeds Beckett University Ecosystem, as well as the Yorkshire Innovation Fund. And Suneel advises social enterprises in the UK.

He also works with refugee entrepreneurship and mental health for the BAME community and facilitates the inclusion of marginalised communities as well.

And well, he's currently the lecturer for enterprise and entrepreneurship at Manchester Business School. He's also thought innovation and technology transfer for MBA students at Leeds Beckett.

So Suneel has various degrees, you know under his hat. He has an MBA from the University of Manchester, he has a PhD in Polymer Physics from the University of Leeds. He has an MSC in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science as well as B E in engineering and from Bangalore.

We're very happy to have you here with us Suneel, and we'd like to speak about innovation and the technology industry.

SUNEEL: Thanks Ranjana. It's a pleasure to be here.

RANJANA: Okay, great. Suneel just to walk you through: We want to speak about the life cycle of a technology innovation within of start-ups and within of companies, medium sized companies, what it takes for an idea to get commercialised, what kind of collaborative approaches would really accelerate the success of these innovations being absorbed into the company's culture?

So, according to the what's the life cycle of a technology innovation in an existing industry and specifically say in the electronics industry?

SUNEEL: Sure, so I think it depends a lot of factors. There are two ways to look at it.

One is what are the consumer wants and needs. You know that of course, it's very, very important to look at that aspect.

But the other dimension is the technology push dimension as well. So there is the technology push. And then there is the consumer pull dimension.

Now, if you talk about, let us say consumer products in the high-tech consumer products electronics, there is again an argument.

Okay, Yes, there are consumer wants and needs, but the big question is do consumers know what they want and need? You know, the classic example we always given. I usually give this classic example when I'm in the classroom teaching entrepreneurship is when we had feature phones, did we know we wanted a smartphone? You know, we never calculated that. Of course, we had a palm.

And, you know, I was using a feature phone, you know, I was thinking, Hey, you know what? Let me get a Palm Pilot. And Palm Pilot wasn't really a phone then, you know, it was just an expensive diary. Basically, that's what the Palm Pilot was.

So there is the consumer pull side of things, but that is the technology push now. Technology itself, if you don't have the capital, you know, if you don't have the resources to create the idea and take it to market, it can be a humongous task.

You know, even companies who have the resources play the wait and see game. You know, they're not going to immediately jump in because they want to maintain the status quo.

Now, that makes it really difficult, even for small and medium enterprises. Because, hey, you know what? You don't have the resources to actually do what the large companies can do. And even if you do come up with an interesting technology, then there is a problem because the large companies want to maintain the status quo. Right?

So you've got this dilemma, you know. So there is the thing, you know, what technology should we work on? What do consumers really want? Right. And I think that's where the technology life cycles start. How do you balance this technology push with consumer pull? But once you have kind of thought about that clearly, then you know, I would say half the problem is solved. Maybe more than half the problem is solved because and I think Einstein said “If I had one hour, then I would spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem, and I would think five minutes actually trying to create a solution”, you know? So I don't think creating a solution is a problem these days, because, okay, if I don't have the resources, you know what? I can go and gather resources from outside.

But I think the life cycle really starts with what is the problem that I actually want to work on? You know what technologies exist? Do I have to really create a new technology? What technologies exist, firstly within my reach? Okay with my network, within my reach, and then ok.

What actually do consumers want, what are the pains in their lives and what needs to be solved? So I think that's where it starts.

RANJANA: Ok. So how does innovation rely on collaborations? And how could companies look outside for innovative solutions rather than relying solely on their internal capabilities?

SUNEEL: Yeah. So, as I was saying, you know, first thing companies need to do is look at what existing technologies are there.

I mean, I can give you an example from the tech industry itself. And a really good classic example is that of batteries. Okay, I'm not electronics guy per se. I come from a materials background, but I've done a bit of a search on, for example, battery technologies and what's happening in that space.

So let's take a look at lithium batteries. Companies have built big giga factories for lithium batteries, including Tesla. But it is said that lithium batteries have perhaps reached their limit. And if you're going to go into the more electric kind of revolution in the future, then we need alternative batteries.

So, lot of technologies exist for interesting alternative batteries, which are more sustainable. So, one example is that of sodium carbon dioxide battery, which is basically salt and carbon dioxide from the air, you know, unlimited quantities. It's more eco-friendly than a lithium battery, because a lithium battery needs a lot. You're going to destroy the salt flats in Bolivia if you're going to power the entire world with lithium batteries.

All right, so you know the start-ups exist who have the kind of technology. So these innovations already exist, and it's not like we can't actually change the way we consume, the way we manufacture things.

It can change. But how do we start? Right? You know, that's a big question you asked is, you know how do we bring these things to market?

Innovations exist. So maybe what doesn't exist? The simple answer is, what doesn’t exist is the manufacturing capability, it's the scale up.

Another example I can give you which will help understand the situation is, I've done some work in the bioplastic industry, for example, and there is this whole thing about okay, what's a sustainable plastic? Fossil based and oil are not considered very, very sustainable. So there's this natural tendency to go towards bio plastics, for example. Again, of course, there is the argument that bioplastics are not an entire solution in themselves.

Now companies that have come up with these interesting chemistries for making bioplastics, however, challenge it, right? Before you make a massive plant that is producing millions of tonnes a year, what you want to do is you want to do a pilot plant and test it out right, so you need to demonstrate that you can actually do it on a smaller scale before you increase your capabilities to manufacture on a larger scale.

Because you're fighting against the status quo materials, you have to show that the economics works for production. You have to show that it has useful applications, right? It's the same thing for any industry and electronics industry, materials industry, plastics, you know, whatever. It's the same thing.

What capabilities do you need, particularly in manufacturing electronic manufacturing.. What capabilities do you need?

Yes, you have an idea. You've identified the problem and created a product.

Okay, one angle is yeah, you know what? I'm going to go and outsource it. But that only works for, let us say, in a very inventive kind of consumer electronics product. But if you're trying to come up with a new battery technology, it's a different ball game. Isn't it? You know, I have to show that I can actually, there's no way I can outsource it, right.

It needs a new process technology. 

It's not just you know, take different components and put it together in an electronics manufacturing assembly or manufacturing facility.

I need a new pilot plant that produces, you know, these batteries using a new process technology. Okay, it's not just enough having in the lab an aluminium hydroxide or a sodium carbon dioxide battery.

I need to ramp up right. So that's the capability.

 

I think for me, that scale up thing has a different notion in the tech industry. Scaling up is basically how can I increase my market share without actually consuming a lot of resources? Right.

But, hey, if you want to scale up aluminium hydroxide or sodium carbon dioxide battery, scale up idea needs to be different. I need resources for that kind of a scale up. I need to build a pilot plant. Once a pilot plant is built, then I can demonstrate that you know what? Now I can start moving into taking share from the lithium batteries.

Now, that's the capability, you know. I mean, I think how do we build that kind of capability? If large companies want to maintain a status quo, how do we do that? And that's a big question.

And of course, you know you can start collaborating with universities or, for example, in the UK we have Centre for Process Innovation, right? You know, CPI, which is a government quango. You know, of course, it's nothing is free in the world, right? And of course, there are avenues for new technologies, particularly if they are eco-friendly. And there are venture capitalists these days who support sustainable innovation. So even in Silicon Valley, it's becoming the norm these days. Correct?

 

It's not just showing the economic impact, but you also need to show the environmental and societal impacts. So something like lithium batteries if they're destroying Bolivian salt flats, obviously there will be question marks, but if you can show that this is going to actually be very useful because hey, you know what? If you're going to go into the electric revolution and we need more electric cars on the road, lithium is not the way to go.

If you can prove that you can demonstrate that economic side of things and also at the same time, this is really great for the environment.

But that's not an easy task. Again, it's not an easy task because every technology carries a lot of uncertainty, right? That is a technological uncertainty, and that is market uncertainty.

 

Now lithium has become a dominant technology, but the battle is still on for the other battery technologies to work it out against each other, and that is where the market uncertainty is.

So venture capitalists and any investor, any funder, will be very cautious. Okay, I've got 10 batteries, new battery technologies. Which one should I go for? Now you ask me about whom do I collaborate with, right? For startups, this creates a dilemma.

Okay, now we have the big tech in the world.

An entrepreneur in the strictest sense is interested in benefiting the society. That's the actual classic definition of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs get bored easily, and they're not there to become the big unicorn companies.

If you are a true entrepreneur who came up with something really wonderful that can really benefit the society, save the world and you want companies to also, you know large companies who have the resources to actually go away from the status quo and do better things. You have to be willing to give up your technology to them. Not in the sense that OK, they take the technology and they still continue with the lithium batteries.

You need to find the right person; the right partner carries that those values.

RANJANA: The same ethos, yes.

SUNEEL: The ethos, the same values, yes.

So, I think that's where the challenges for organizations, for start-ups, small businesses to find a partner, perhaps an exit route as well.

I personally cannot think of any alternative way of doing things other than to actually go with a large tech. Now for hardware, electronics, new technology in a new innovation, something a bit more radical, lot more market uncertainties.

How else do we mitigate these uncertainties? At some point, I think you have to find a large company who carries those values who can support you.

RANJANA: Well, that's what we strongly believe as well, because with everything that's happening in the tech industry now, it's so cross-sectoral, even within of a certain sector, it's so cross disciplinary, so it would be essential to people to start thinking about this as a new paradigm of operating their business. This is what we think as well.

So I want to next ask you about the issues faced by start-up tech entrepreneurs in getting their ideas commercialised? The old valley of death as well.

SUNEEL: Sure. Well, I personally think, you know, I've met a lot of tech entrepreneurs, and one of the mistakes tech entrepreneurs do is they want to patent things.

Oh, yeah, you know what it’s my intellectual property I can sell this patent of licence it or this patent will protect me from someone else taking over my technology. Right? And I think that's a big mistake.

It costs a lot of money going to a patent attorney, filing a patent. You have to wait so many years, five years, maybe for the patent to be accepted, right? It takes time for patents. It's not like an overnight thing, patents. So if it's going to take five years, and in that meantime, someone else can copy you, right? Yeah, someone else can copy you easily. The big guys can come and copy you right? That's one way of thinking that it can be easily copied now.

The other way of thinking is if you come up with a new product idea. And obviously it's not just about the product.

And as I was saying earlier, the process side of things as important as, well, how do you make it right? And that needs a lot of new abilities, new capabilities.

Now, only the person who works on those new ways of making or creating those new products will be able to provide expertise on it. That's tacit knowledge. What I call as tacit knowledge. So you know that's not easy to steal.'

Okay, yeah, you can come up with a new, inventive product. But if you go by the patenting where it's going to be very expensive, can you just wait and you think, OK, licence it. And then the big company can think about how to actually produce it. But you know what? Forget the patenting but start thinking how to make it. Now, if you start thinking how to make it, you develop the tacit knowledge. When you develop the tacit knowledge, your combined portfolio of intellectual property becomes even stronger.

So I always tell tech entrepreneurs don't think about patenting and licencing. Do it. You know, show it. Show your process knowledge, process capabilities. Show that to the world.

 

I think that is the classic mistake that a lot of tech entrepreneurs make, and I've seen it. I mean, I've seen it in, when I'm teaching entrepreneurship to students at the at the university, you know they are like I want to patent, I have an interesting idea. Can I patent it? I’m like there's so many technologies already existing.

You know, we don't need one more technology and one more patent. There is knowledge out there already, and you know, the cross-licencing thing you're talking about earlier.

You know the cross-sector collaboration. Now you can cross licence even within the electronics industry or any tech industry. There are so many technologies available, and you can create interesting products, and you can improvise on processors by cross licencing new technologies. Okay, so the technologies are already out there.

Let the big guys do and patent it.

And if you're an entrepreneur, and even if you're a medium sized business who don't have the resources to wait for five years to patent, and then for that patent to be copied by someone else. If you don't want to wait, then the game is what interesting technologies are out there.

 

How can I mix them and create a new product and new processes? How can I demonstrate a new process? Okay, and I think that's the way to go.

RANJANA: So, rather than focusing on patenting it and getting the IP in the beginning, the focus should be on the business viability of the product and ensuring it is ready to be commercialised or making it commercial even, based on the person of the company's resource ability.

SUNEEL: Exactly yeah.

We're at this position again in the world where we probably have a lot of technologies already there. I was just wondering about this thing that's happening in the car industry at the minute.

Okay, I wanted a laptop, so I've joined this new job and I wanted a laptop, so I wanted a slightly upgraded laptop, for example. But it's going to take 24 more months to 20 weeks to get that laptop. So instead, I'm just going for the standard off shelf laptop. The reason is there is a dearth of precious metals at the minute, which is impacting on computer manufacturing. And I was just reading the news today that in the 65 years in the UK, our prediction of cars this year has been the lowest.

RANJANA: Yes, I mean also because of the chip shortage, the pandemic, everything, right?

SUNEEL: Everything, the chip shortage, everything.

And that says that we are at a point in time where we're going to have a crunch of resources. The earth is limited.

 

It's not an infinite source of materials, right.

It's a limited planet we live on.

We can't just keep taking things out.

We just can't keep coming up with new technologies that need new materials.

We have to be careful technologically, technology needs to solve people's problems. Yes, and people's lives have become better as a result of technology.

But I always look at it from two sides, you know technology is a solution. But technology is also a problem, right?

 

So for entrepreneurs, that creates, and especially for today’s entrepreneurs and also a lot of medium businesses who have those family values and ethical and responsible values that creates a moral dilemma.

It's like what technologies should I create so that it syncs with my values? It syncs with the idea of a responsible business. I feel that, you know, entrepreneurs need to be aware of what is happening in the world and medium businesses need to be aware of what is happening in the world and then decide on technologies that are neutrals.

You don't need another new technology. There's enough of existing technologies.

 

What can we actually do? You know, in terms of best use of a bad bargain kind of thing. And create something that is solving people's lives. But at the same time, it's not creating additional problems.

RANJANA: Right. But now going back to something that you said earlier on. I want to focus a little bit more on it.

So, when you look at the mid-sized or larger companies, how do you think they can engage with the start-ups and entrepreneurs to find and evaluate ideas which they could potentially commercial together. And I’m looking at this from the company's perspective as well.

SUNEEL: Yeah, so large companies have always had this corporate venturing arms and technology scouting.

And, you know, there was a time when there were all these technologies scouting intermediary firms that would go and scout technologies that would create briefs for large companies. And then people would come and solve the problem.

And I personally think that, you know, I think it’s personal perspective. It's a bit of an exploitation of our gig economy kind of thing. You know, it's a cheaper way of doing things. Because scientists and engineers and inventors, you know, they are there to solve and benefit the society and to solve our problems and benefit the society.

It can't always be commercial, commercial, commercial all the time.

Okay, in the long run thing, things can become commercial, but it requires perseverance and patience.

If companies want to blend in with the changing values in the society, they need to give up this gig economy thinking because you can't solve the world's problems overnight.

Okay, so how do you find the right partner? You know, you asked me the question for large companies. How do you go and find the right entrepreneurial partner? You just need to go a long term. You need to see the trends. The trends are okay. People value responsible companies.

So if you're a responsible company, then you would partner with the right entrepreneur on a long term basis. Not just OK, Here's the problem. You know, we think this problem is an urgent problem. And here's a brief and, you know, can anyone come up with a solution overnight? That's not going to work. If you're going to solve the world's problems, the commercial angle will come.

For example, if I want to go from lithium to the next battery generation technology, is that going to happen overnight? In some spaces it's not going to happen overnight, right? So, and that requires long term collaboration that requires finding the right partner whose values matches your newfound values.

Okay, companies have to change their values and then look for a partner who can bring in more to those values, and I think that's the way to go about it.

RANJANA: It's interesting because my next question is about collaborative methods, and we strongly believe that any kind of collaboration shouldn't be so burdensome on the documentation or the administrative end. So it's not stopping anybody from actually exploring the partnership, and rather it could start off with less formal methods, which are really powerful. And then once the two parties see something long term, they can find more formal contractual methods to engage with each other.

So I want to hear your thoughts about this as well. And what have you seen in your experience also so far, which works? Which doesn't work? Specifically, the high tech or the electronic sectors.

SUNEEL: Yeah, So there are different schools of thought here on how you know collaborations can work, you know? Yes, you can have a formalised collaboration and then have an NDA, you know, a non-disclosure agreement and all that stuff.

Who owns the intellectual property? How much share of intellectual property? And all that stuff. You can have all those agreements before you start working in a collaboration.

But personally, what we were saying in the beginning. So I'm coming back to what I was saying in the beginning is technology push is not everything. There is a consumer pull as well. That's important, too. And how do you work on a right problem? Have we discovered the right problem, before we can start formalising the collaboration?

So at that point of time, you need self-selected stakeholders who value your entrepreneurial spirit, who value your innovative spirit, who value your initial original ideas. The ideas may change as you start collaborating with people. No, you can't write this down when your idea is not clear cut. Okay, you have an idea, and you want to do something for the world, okay? And it's not a mature idea at that point of time, but you can't formalise at that point of time. Especially when that idea is carrying a lot of uncertainty.

New technology carries a lot of uncertainty, right? If there is uncertainty, is formalisation going to help? You know, I think that's a big question mark.

So, you need self-selected stakeholders. You need people who bring in new knowledge into the collaboration and new resources into the collaboration. They are willing to commit resources to the collaboration, right? You can have an NDA and then say you know what we've done an NDA, you know 5% share, 10% share, 20% share.

But that doesn't show commitment, in my opinion. Because I might as well sign three or four collaborations. And then I might decide that this collaboration is the best, and I'm coming out of these other two collaborations, right?

But if you self-select yourself into a collaboration, which is a little bit less formalised, you know, and it is based on what you know, whom you know, and who am I? Ok, who am I? What do I know? Whom do you know. And you self-select. You commit to that collaboration and the idea may change because you're committing your resources and you want to influence the collaboration, right? So if you're not open to others influencing your ideas, then the collaboration will not be successful. 

 

Yeah, it's called the Effectuation Method. It's basically common sense this method. It's been given a name, Effectuation, but it's common sense. Basically, academics have given it a name, but I think successful entrepreneurs have always worked like that.

You try and formalise a collaboration, you lose trust. You know, you start suspecting others. Are they going to take over my share? You know, are they going to cheat me out of it? But if people come and say you know what I want to contribute to this. But whoever started that collaboration has to be willing for others to change the idea as it develops.

Okay, so once you've got a developed idea, once the uncertainties have been minimised, then yeah, perhaps you can formalise a little bit, but I think to start with, formalisation doesn't work in all the situations.

RANJANA: Yeah, so two parties or three parties have to kind of morph into another, so to say, party and build its own identity and understand its own foot holding in the market, and then formalising it might be sort of a sensible thing to do. When required, if required. Right?

SUNEEL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

And obviously, when the collaboration is not formalised, you may not provide big resources like you're not going to come and tell sodium carbon dioxide battery start up. You know what? Let's make a huge plan. I'm going to build a big plant for you that's going to produce millions of units of this battery every year.

But what you might do is hey, you know what? I've got this expertise in process technology and you've got this expertise in the materials. Okay, so how can we bring together this knowledge and see? And maybe the person who has the process technology can also influence a little bit of materials as well, and it may evolve into something else. You know, it won't be the original sodium carbon dioxide battery, but there may be a refinement to that sodium carbon dioxide battery. Right?

So you can't forecast what is going to happen with a collaboration. No, a lot of formalised collaboration is based on certainty that, you know we've got a certain product can produce this in large quantities.

We can take over the market kind of thing. You know, so that's exploitation. But exploration: exploration is always best to start with some informal arrangements. And then if that works out, then you can formalise the exploration a bit more. Then when the exploration is successful, then you start exploiting things.

So there is exploration and exploitation things right? So, yeah, I think it depends again. Its very context based.

RANJANA: Great. All excellent points Suneel. The conversation has been very, very insightful of course.

I would say to sum up and maybe something I could explain to a five-year-old would be, its problem – solution – impact - and then commercialise. That should be the ideal journey that an entrepreneur or any innovative tech should be taking is, my understanding. And I hope I got that right, in the simplest terms.

SUNEEL: Absolutely. Yes.

You need to start with the right problem and technology. 
 

So many technologies already exist. We don't have to go hunting for another new technology.

And collaborations can be informal, to take an existing technology and improve it using informal collaborations as well.

It doesn't have to be formalised because of technology uncertainties and market uncertain.

RANJANA: Great, okay. So thank you so much Suneel. It's been an absolute pleasure, and well we'll hope to have you back on sometime soon.

SUNEEL: Thank you. it's been a pleasure. Bye.

Key Takeaway Points​

  • There are two ways to look at the life cycle of a technology innovation:

    • One is through technology push

    • The other is the consumer pull dimension

The key starting point is identifying what solution the problem needs, and what technologies are already out there, which can be used, and understanding what resources and networks are already available. This is when the life cycle of a technology starts.

  • The salt flats in Bolivia will be destroyed, if we’re going to power the entire world with lithium from there. We need alternative battery technologies, such as sodium carbon dioxide.

  • Start-ups with the right technologies already exist. What we need, is meaningful collaborations for the manufacturing capability, the scale up.

  • Consumer products can have some of the manufacturing outsourced, but for materials and innovative tech, we need to identify partners with complementary process technologies.

  • Every technology carries a lot of uncertainty. So, there is technological uncertainty, as well as market uncertainty. Once the economic viability is demonstrated, and one see how the technology benefits society, this is when one could look for the right company, and the right partner, with the same ethos.

  • For tech entrepreneurs, rather than focusing on patenting and IP alone, a focus on business viability will be beneficial. This would lead to new process knowledge, and new process capabilities, i.e., tacit knowledge. This tacit knowledge would further strengthen the combined intellectual property of the portfolio.

  • We are reaching this point in time where there will be crunch of resources. The earth has a finite source of materials. We need to create solutions that will solve people’s problems, rather than create further problems. There are many existing technologies already, and we can make the best use of a bad bargain and create something that will solve people’s problems.

  • Large companies need to think long-term while engaging with entrepreneurs and find partners with similar values because the world’s problems cannot be solved overnight.

  • New technologies are uncertain, so formalizing is not the best option very early on. The idea may morph.

  • You need self-selected stakeholders to collaborate, based on what you know, whom you know, and who I am. The initial idea might change, but you are committing your resources and influencing the idea, i.e. the Effectuation Method.

  • Once you mitigate the technology and market uncertainties, and showcase economic viability, that is the right time to formalize a collaboration.