The concept of radical or breakthrough innovation is a fundamental pillar in the innovation discourse (Abernathy and Utterback 1978; Porter 1985; Tushman and Anderson 1986;Abernathy and Clark x). Nevertheless, it has worked more as principle or template (Baden-Fuller and Winter 2008) rather than as analytical category for the identification of breakthrough innovations in empirical fields. As a matter of fact, traditional proxies identified in swift changes in competition or internal resources have shown unreliable in front of the specificity of contexts and increasing pace of technological changes. Rather than to trace radical innovation on the basis of its effects, we look at its origins, i.e. at the dynamics of emergence, searching for robust and grounded operationalizations. We take Nobel Prizes as signals of breakthrough innovations and reconstruct their emerging process and dynamic evolution through some in-depth case studies of winners in medicine. Origins and components of this process remain often obscure to protagonists themselves who see in their paths only strikes of chance, e.g. Montalcini in her Nobel lecture (1986) claims: “Chance, rather than calculated search, signed a new, most fortunate turn of events”. We conceive innovation as resulting from the co –evolution of socio-semantic networks built from PubMed papers (Frigotto and Riccaboni 2011) and we search for a dynamic pattern in the emergence and evolution of breakthrough innovation in terms of new entries, new combinations or new configurations in the community of co-authors and the concepts (i.e. paper’s keywords/MESH terms) in the field.
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