Don’t expect MNEs to do basic research, says US executive

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Carl Kohrt, Battelle’s president and CEO made some incisive comments in a 2006 interview with Industry Week.

He argued that an increasing government role (in basic research) is made even more imperative by the business model pressures on the R&D decisions made by established multinational firms. (Kohrt was a former chief technology officer at Kodak).“These marketers typically have a strong historical connection with a brand or an industry in which they compete,” says Kohrt.

As a result, they have an increased tendency to spend more and more resources on innovative extensions of existing product lines. At most, creative ideas are only applied within a field that they self-define. “The tendency is . . . you have wonderful technology . . . you know it can be used for other things, but it’s got to be used for the thing that you’re making money on — now.” Increasingly, says Kohrt, companies are working more on product development, more near-term innovations and less on the basic discovery step. “They now expect to get that from government, universities and networked collaborators in the Procter & Gamble style.”

At the industrial level, Kohrt says R&D practices “have been reduced to a commoditization of existing knowledge and technology through global collaboration.” He makes the point that the old days of corporate basic research have dwindled since a peak in the early 80s. “Back then,” he reminisces, “Kodak had research facilities on four continents.” (Today Kodak has R&D facilities in Rochester, N.Y. and Cambridge UK).

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