Nature and Biodiversity

4 inventions that tell us business musn't give up on scientific research

Brewing innovation … research into beer led to the development of the pH scale.

Brewing innovation … research into beer led to the development of the pH scale. Image: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer

Jacob Aarup-Andersen
Chief Executive Officer, Carlsberg Group
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Private business can contribute important scientific advances that benefit society – but the role of science is declining in corporate research and development.
  • Short-term product development should combined with long-term, research-intensive innovation.
  • Technological advancements are key to confronting global challenges – this requires judicious innovation.

The COVID era simultaneously eroded trust in science and government, while increasing expectations of businesses to advance the public good. That means the time is ripe for corporations to create innovations that will rebuild trust in science and help tackle big societal issues.

Few issues are bigger than climate change. Climate change is a real threat not only to brewers, but to the entire food and beverage industry. Barley yields are falling. Fresh water is harder to find. Good quality hops are under threat from heatwaves.

Innovation is a key lever to improve food security. But the pressures of public markets and quarterly earnings come with the risk that companies focus too narrowly on fast returns of short-term innovation over long-term innovation that is research-intensive and entails greater risk and uncertainty.

Have you read?

Since the 1980s, there has been a systemic shift away from basic scientific research by large companies towards developing new products and harnessing existing research. This paper about the decline of science in corporate R&D likens the situation to corporations valuing the golden eggs of science, but not the golden goose of scientific capabilities.

At Carlsberg, we pride ourselves in taking a different approach. Through the Carlsberg Foundations, nearly 30% of our dividends go to support the arts, civil society and advancements in science. The Carlsberg Research Laboratory was founded in 1875: What started as a quest to develop a scientific basis for malting, brewing and fermentation is today a world-leading laboratory for brewing-oriented research.

Thanks to this unique structure, we have struck a balance that combines big business's ability to innovate rapidly, with academia's advancement of basic scientific research that addresses global challenges and is universally beneficial. As well as commercial innovations that drive value in the short term, the Carlsberg Research Laboratory to take on strategic, long-term research projects aimed at breakthrough innovations. Research into beer has led to discoveries that are far bigger than our business – like inventing the pH scale in 1909.

With the troubling drop in corporate research in mind, here are some other inspiring examples of scientific breakthroughs driven by business:

Fibre optic cables.
Fibre optic cables. Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

1. Glass company creates fibre optics

In 1970, the world wasn’t yet asking for a way to transmit massive volumes of data at nearly the speed of light. That didn’t stop three Corning scientists from developing the world's first low-loss optical fiber using thin strands of Corning glass. From the internet to the endoscope, the societal impact of fibre optics on our daily life is impossible to overstate. Today, Corning remains the global leader in fibre optics.

AI.
AI. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

2. Quiz show computer solves complex problems

IBM has been researching artificial intelligence since the 1950s. After IBM’s Deep Blue computer defeated Garry Kasparov in the wordless game of chess in 1997, IBM was looking for a bigger challenge – one that would put their breakthrough natural language processing science to the test. Meet Watson. Originally designed to compete in the gameshow Jeopardy!, Watson has found applications in enterprise and healthcare diagnosis, while inspiring a generation of technologists with the power and potential of AI to address complex problems.

Water purification.
Water purification. Image: Procter & Gamble

3. From clean clothes to clean drinking water

In the late 1990s, while researching ways to separate dirt from used laundry water, scientists at Procter & Gamble (P&G) created a breakthrough in water purification. With this technology, dirty – potentially deadly – water becomes clean and drinkable in a simple and affordable way. Since starting to deploy their water purification packets around the world, P&G and its partners have provided millions of litres of clean water and prevented countless water-born illnesses.

Crop identification.
Crop identification. Image: Carlsberg Group.

4. Finding crops of the future

In 2022, scientists at Carlsberg Research Laboratory invented a non-GMO breeding method called FIND-IT, a technology that can screen thousands of individual crops to find seeds with traits worth breeding. The team set out to breed better tasting barley, but quickly realized FIND-IT had huge potential to improve global food security. It can find seeds that are more resistant to climate change and disease. And it can identify crops that are more nutritionally dense. In the right hands, the possibilities are endless.

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What do these breakthroughs have in common? They started with companies doing basic research to change their business and ended with new science that can change the world. Imagine the possibilities if more companies got back to investing in basic research.

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