My most recent area of interest has been business, entrepreneurship, and startups. My experiences have mostly been in university chemistry departments, which may or may not translate to other disciplines. Furthermore, these opinions stem mostly from my impressions more so than hard facts, but I’m always open to discussion and other perspectives.
Since I started my doctorate at Université de Montréal, my project has been aimed at moving the project to a stage that could feasibly be commercialised, in addition to the more fundamental side of the research. Though there is a small area of overlap between commercial and academic end goals, research with this dual objective can be difficult to manage. Commercialization work, or simply work to obtain a sufficiently viable proof of concept that can later be developed into a product, is often divergent from typical academic research. Publishable work tends to be more basic, examining concepts and principles behind phenomena, while sellable research tends to have a much more pointed objective, resulting in a minimum viable product. These are not mutually exclusive, but from a student’s perspective, sellable research is more risky; its objective must be fully realized in the requisite time period, but must also be sufficiently expansive to convince a committee of professors to give you a degree.
My PhD project started with a very practical and pragmatic objective, and was moving towards a commercial objective. I spent about one year working on this part of the project, and developed some interesting things. However, my objective being graduation, I wanted this work to go towards my thesis, and this could not happen until the work was patented (otherwise a thesis is public disclosure, and the material is no longer patentable). After completing some work on the protected subject matter, and preparing an article, there was nothing more I could do (including submitting the article) until the patent application was filed. My solution to this was to change the direction of my project towards something more publishable. The end result was that my first year and all the work it involved did not contribute much to my thesis (or publication record), though it did add some content to an existing ‘declaration of invention’ (the university’s internal precursor to a patent.)
A lot of the research done in academia claims to be ‘translational research’, but remains fundamental research. This can be developing new drugs or other types of technology aimed at specific need. Professors often market their research as ‘translational’ because grant proposals promote tangible project objectives, ideally with measurable resulting economic impact. Furthermore, this type of research can attract more students since many students would love to receive royalties for their fantastic invention, or better yet, have their foot in the door of commercial partners. It is not that professors are intentionally misleading people, but I think that by force of repetition, they convince themselves of their work’s applicability. Over time they can get disconnected from what makes a good product, or what intellectual property a company may want to buy.
The best justification of this viewpoint is that a few professors generally own the bulk of their department’s patents, while the rest have few or none. Those successful few are the ones that understand the process and requirements for IP acquisition and commercialization. My best guess is that the experiential barrier to entry is somewhat high from a professor’s perspective since there is a lot of new information to learn, but that once they know what to look for, they can really start producing many such products. A good way to semi-objectively evaluate the state of a research project is to try to gauge the technology readiness level. This can give a good indication as to how close a project really is to commercialization.
This whole article can be summed up very succinctly: if you are a new student and are being enticed by a professor with a project is ‘translational research’, take a look at their track record. Do they have patents? Are these patents being exploited? Do they have commercial partners? What is the tech readiness level of the project? If any of these questions have a positive answer or TRL is past level 3, then that may very well be true. If the answer is something nebulous, to the tune of: “There are many interested parties, but we will establish more formal collaborations once the project matures sufficiently”, then there are good chances the project is purely academic, at least for the time being. Both commercial and fundamental research have their pros and cons for graduate students, but it helps to be aware what you are getting into before you start to best chart your course.