December 8, 2014 Society

Taking Research to Innovation, the Power of Networks

Crossing the barrier from research to innovation, leading to a product that can be commercialised, is something most researchers have a conceptual problem with. We are trained to focus on answering a specific question given to us by applying rigorous research methodologies. Without realising it we tend to come up with innovative ideas that can make a difference, but often fail to recognize that potential. It is only when we are forced to look at our work from a commercial point-of-view that we start making these connections, something I had to learn the hard way.

“Innovation” sounded very exciting but I quickly realised that my narrow view on research meant I had a lot to learn, and fast. The obvious choice was to learn from others and surround myself with people who had the knowledge I lacked. I met up with a young, innovative and energetic industrial designer (strange combination, I know) and quickly realised that my concept of a revolutionary, world saving product was not at all market feasible. I was working on a concept for a new water treatment bottle and had what I thought was an amazing concept for how the water bottle would work. Within five minutes the designer quickly educated me on the influence of materials, costs and what realistically could be produced. And so our journey together started with months of discussions to find a way to do what I wanted in a manner that was doable.

Just when I thought we were ready to change the world the next set of obstacles quickly presented itself. Obstacles like: do we patent or not, how do we fund this, how do you write a business plan, how do you convince people of the need for your product etc. etc. And of course the question I hated the most, how can we make money from this because there are bills to pay. As I reached the point of giving up, the potential and power of my Young Water Professional (YWP) network started paying off in a BIG way.

I was attending conferences and asking my fellow YWPs to introduce me around and I quickly met seasoned professionals willing to sit and discuss my design and how to approach those difficult questions. Through these meetings I obtained my first funding, had prototypes made, started testing the water bottle in the laboratory (finally a stage where I felt safe again!) and applied for my first patent. Life was good and I was ready to save the world…again!

All of this would never have happened if I did not take the time to learn from others, change my point-of-view and use my networks to their fullest. Attending all those IWA, and specifically IWA YWP conferences, prepared me for this specific phase of my career. I now attend conferences to meet more people who I can learn from, learn from the work presented, identify possible collaborators but most importantly to have fun. It is surprising who you will meet and what you can learn by speaking to as many people as possible. I must confess that through this I also met some of the most amazing people that I today consider to be true friends. And trust me, you need them as well. These friends understand what I am going through, are willing to listen and, when things aren’t going so well, create distractions for me to forget about everything.

I guess my message is simple, attend YWP conferences with an open and eager mind and see what can happen. I am attending my next YWP conference in Taipei and cannot wait to see my friends and meet all the new YWPs. Hope to see you all soon at an IWA or YWP conference.

To learn more about Young Water Professionals visit

Tobias Barnard

Chair (2012-2014)