Technology Transfer is defined as “the process of transferring technology from its origination to a wider distribution among more people and places.” Various communities such as business, academia and government are routinely involved in these initiatives including across international borders, both formally and informally.
The primary desire is to share expertise, knowledge, technologies, methodologies, facilities, and capabilities among governments or universitiesand other institutions to ensure that scientific and technological developments are accessible to users who can then pursue development, robustification, design for manufacturability and exploit the technology into new products, processes, applications, materials or services. There are several types of returns. First, for the stakeholder’s investment in the research itself. Second, for creation of new job opportunities. Lastly, for a new product or service that is likely to impact the health and viability on a global scale.
The U.S. government invests some $135B each year to advance science and technology (S&T) as the basis for breakthrough knowledge development and new innovations, of which around 20 to 30 percent is invested in successful Technology Transfer. The federal S&T budget is a sizeable sum. In fact, the federal laboratory ecosystem provides a home to several hundred thousand scientists and engineers working to solve some of the most significant scientific challenges on a national and global scale. The national laboratories alone annually produce 11,000 peer reviewed publications and over 1,700 reported inventions and 6,000 active technology license agreements. However, the primary mission of the federal laboratory ecosystem is to perform basic research for scientific discovery to, support national defense and other missions, and to perform research and development in spaces where industry is not yet ready to lead.
Unlike both public and private commercial companies, the federal laboratories perform R&D with neither specific products nor services directly in mind. Most work in the public interest, and are often trusted advisors of the government. They understand the mission space, the requirements, and the gaps that need to be closed to improve safety and security of the nation.
The primary customers of the output from federal laboratory research and development efforts are often the federal agencies directly funding the work, since commercial transfer brings private funds to bear to bring products to market with government funded intellectual property inside. It is also an expectation as part of the charter of federal laboratories in 1986 that successful commercial outcomes are resultant benefits of the high-performance research programs.
What are the perceived barriers of Technology Transfer?
There are several constructs that impact success of Technology Transfer, and not least the uniqueness of the Intellectual Property (IP) involved, for example:
- Is it leading-edge and breakthrough?
- Is it disruptive?
- Is it easily “copied”?
- Are there competing technologies?
- Is there a work-around?
All these factors contribute to the ultimate value positioning opportunity for transfer. In addition, federal laboratories are not evaluated directly by their sponsors on the commercial impacts of their research initiatives, and are in many cases discouraged from “picking winners and losers” in their effort to remain the unbiased and trusted advisors of the government. Due to the nature of their funding, federal laboratory research outputs are atypically complete product solutions and are most often in the early stage of development. Companies to which the outcomes are transitioned must provide additional resources to develop research results into commercial, robust, sustainable products and services, and in the case of any environmental or medical technologies, seek appropriate regulatory approvals and often conduct clinical trials, if necessary.
These additional steps consume further investment dollars, can dilute internal company efforts, and seriously hinder the attractiveness of the transfer opportunity. Furthermore, most successful products combine multiple innovations from a variety of sources to meet customer needs. A single technology license rarely provides a complete solution. These circumstances are especially true for the output from federal programs. The ability to deliver a final product is rare, and outputs are routinely seen as components ready for embedding into other more complex offerings.
Other issues that present barriers, in the case of federal R&D, is that the initiatives emanating from the federal laboratories are perceived to be difficult for companies to access. This is due largely because researchers must obtain funding for all their labor hours, and relatively few resources are available to support sustained collaborations with companies unless they are negotiated within the license agreement itself. Frequently, early stage companies pursuing technology transfer opportunities require assistance and mentorship not available at federal laboratories.
The hope is that some of the newly created and established accelerators and incubators with associated mentoring and guidance make for a more seamless transition route. Often good ideas resulting from the discovery phase at the federal labs are touted as moments away from widespread distribution, yet it rarely turns out to be the case. There is still a good deal of additional development, robustification, design for manufacturability, and even market positioning necessary before an “idea” evolves into a fully-fledged commercial opportunity. To streamline this process, encouraging entrepreneurs, investors and IP licensors to communicate a more perfect set of requirements necessary for “go-to-market” opportunities would eliminate the mismatch of expectations between the research and the commercial communities.
Many existing reports, white papers and articles outline the barriers to successful Technology Transfer, and they inevitably focus on the existence of the “valley of death” defined as the phase directly after discovery yet before commercialization. Many articles describe the “push” perspective as the process by which technology moves from research to commercialization. However, the Technology Scouts, now a common formal position in many established companies, spend most of their time searching for technology in a market “pull” process to enhance and supplement a competitive, long-term company business strategy.