Did you know it took 80 years for the winglet to go from invention to first commercial use! All it needed was an oil crisis.
While the initial concept of the winglet was first described by Frederick W. Lanchester way back in 1897 as a method to control wingtip vortices it wasn’t until 1977 that it reached its first commercial application. The main trigger that sped up the development was the oil crisis in 1973 leading to sharp price increases of fuel and urging the need to make airplanes more energy efficient.
First commercial application was in the business jet segment, the Learjet, in 1977. This increased the range by 6,5 %. It took however still another 12 years before the winglet finally got implemented in the first commercial aircraft: Boeing 747-400 for Northwest Airlines in 1989.
This is an iconic example of an invention that was not solving a hot issue at his time but intrinsically made perfect sense. It was just a matter of timing. This is a great example of a technology that did not meet our Prerequisite #3: The market behind the unmet need must be sizeable and keen enough to adopt
While the winglet needed an oil crisis to finally make it, today the mRNA technology needed the corona crisis to get to first commercial application. Inherent to these crises is that they came quite unexpectedly and had an immediate impact. Immediate, in comparison to the typical time required for new technology development (mRNA technology has been in development for over 30 years). This means that the key enabling technology must have been already in development long before the crisis was on the horizon. This is a clear argument for funding research in technologies with huge intrinsic promise even if they are not in line with today’s fashionable drivers.
As the climate crisis has been on the horizon for quite a while, we can hardly state that this crisis comes unexpected. It has triggered the development of technologies aiming to tackle different aspects of climate change related challenges. Still, when looking at it from the viewpoint of conscience and sense of urgency in the society, the mindset has really shifted only in the last few years. Today, this is again pushing technology development but now with a clear market pull at an unprecedented pace. For example, until a few years ago, companies active in the development and production of biopolymers barely survived. Today, half of the world wants to replace their fossil fuel based polymers with biopolymers. This shift requires these new biopolymer technologies to develop in a few years in the way polymer technologies developed in the past 100 years.