George Whitesides of Harvard has a good editorial in the journal Lab on a Chip. He's talking about the development of microassays, but goes on to generalize about the new technologies - how they're found, and how they're taken up (or not) by a wider audience (emphasis mine below):
Lab-on-a-chip (LoC) devices were originally conceived to be useful–that is, to solve problems. For problems in analysis or synthesis (or for other applications, such as growing cells or little animals) they would be tiny – the “microcircuits of the fluidic world.” They would manipulate small volumes of scarce samples, with low requirements for expensive space, reagents and waste. They would save cost and time. They would allow parallel operation. Sensible people would flock to use such devices.
Sensible and imaginative scientists have, in fact, flocked to develop such devices, or what were imagined to be such devices, but users have not yet flocked to solve problems with them. “Build it, and they will come” has not yet worked as a strategy in LoC technology, as it has, say, with microprocessors, organic polymers and gene sequencers. Why not? One answer might seem circular, but probably is not. It is that the devices that have been developed have been elegantly imagined, immensely stimulating in their requirements for new methods of fabrication, and remarkable in their demonstrations of microtechnology and fluid physics, but they have not solved problems that are otherwise insoluble. Although they may have helped the academic scientist to produce papers, they have not yet changed the world of those with practical problems in microscale analysis or manipulation.
Where is the disconnect? One underlying problem has been remarked upon by many people interested in new technology. Users of technology are fundamentally not interested in technology—they are interested in solving their own problems. They want technology to be simple and cheap and invisible. Developers of technology, especially in universities, are often fundamentally not interested in solving real problems—they are interested in the endlessly engaging activity of building and exercising new widgets. They want technology to be technically very cool. “Simple/cheap/invisible” and “technically cool” are not exclusive categories, but they are certainly not synonymous.
That is a constant and widespread phenomenon. There are people who want to be able to do things with stuff, and people who want stuff to do things for them, and the overlap between those two is not always apparent. What happens over time, though, in the best cases, is that the tinkerers come up with things that can be used by a wider audience to solve their own problems. Look no further than the personal computer industry for one of the biggest examples ever. If you didn't live through it, you might not realize how things went from "weird hobbyist thingies" to "neat gizmos if you have the money" to "essential parts of everyday life". Here's Whitesides again:
Here are three useful, homely, rules of thumb to remember in developing products.
• The ratio of money spent to invent something, to make the invention into a prototype product, to develop the prototype to the point where it can be manufactured, and to manufacture and sell it at a large scale is, very qualitatively, 1:10:100:1000. We university folks—the inventors at the beginning of the path leading to products—are cheap dates.
• You don't really know you have solved the problem for someone until they like your solution so much they're willing to pay you to use it. Writing a check is a very meaningful human interaction.
• If the science of something is still interesting, the “something” is probably not ready to be a product.
His second rule reminds me of Stephen King's statement on whether someone has any writing talent or not: "If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented". It's also the measure of success in the drug industry - we are, after all, trying to make things that are useful enough that people will pay us money for them. If we don't come up with enough of those things, or if they don't bring in enough money to cover what it took to find them, then we are in trouble indeed.
More comments on the Whitesides piece here. For scientists (like me, and many readers of the blog), these points are all worth keeping in mind. Some of our biggest successes are things where our contributions are invisible to the end users. . .