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Technology transfer from national labs: Navigating the maze, part 1

Article by G. Ravishankar February 8, 2016, 04:55 pm MST

Much emphasis has been placed in recent years on innovation and technology transfer from the nation's national laboratories into the hands of private companies that can commercialize these technologies. The process, however, remains daunting to most companies, and is not for the fainthearted.

There are a variety of reasons, not the least of which is lack of understanding of how the process 'really' works. Secondly, the process can vary depending on the laboratory, the technology, the level of readiness of the technology, and the desires of the company.

So why do it?

Because it can give a licensee an exceptional advantage against much bigger competitors. Most of the technology is patented. The solutions are very often designed for unique problems faced by the military, space or the world. Innovations such as Goddard's lotus-inspired coating or memory foam. The really hard and expensive work has already been done and paid for by the federal government.

So how does a small or mid-sized company go about it?

The person charged with the tech transfer role must be someone who has a technical and business background and is experienced in product development. They have to be able to understand/discuss the technical aspects, and analyze the financial considerations and ramifications. They ideally need to report directly to the CEO so they have a direct role in the strategic decision-making process.

Typically, you can find technologies at national labs that allow a company to;

  • improve an existing process/product
  • develop a new product
  • start a new business

Finding technologies

The first step in finding technology buried within the national labs is to develop a rough draft on what you are seeking. A list of keywords that that might be present within any document that describe the kind of technology that is of interest. The keywords might be highly technical and specific, or general if you are open about looking at all search results. Words such as 'sensor' and 'chromatograph' will likely results in hundreds if not thousands of hits, whereas terms such as 'cavity down ring spectroscopy' will narrow down the number of hits. Expect to see similar technologies solving the same problem show up at multiple labs because they often compete using different approaches.

The process can take many hundreds of hours of trying different combinations of search terms and sifting through the results. Furthermore, the process will have to be repeated for the website of every lab. (Universities have tech transfer offices as well.)

The next step is compiling a list of documents that often are provided on the tech transfer website. Typically, a one-page description of the technology that is available for license. In most cases there is contact information in form of an email address, phone number and other information such as the primary researcher's name, date of publication, patents.

The date of publication and the patent numbers yield clues into when it was developed and potentially where it is at present time. A technology that is 'available for license' that was published five years ago may have evolved to a point where it is much further along the commercialization path. Conversely, it may have been put on the shelf because it was not commercially viable, and the researchers who worked on it may have moved on to other projects or may no longer be with the laboratory. These situations can pose challenges because restarting a project that has been abandoned can be expensive. Memories fade, and knowledge and documents about the technical issues surrounding the technology may no longer be available.

The next step is reaching out to the lab and the researcher in particular to determine the actual state of the technology. This requires two key skills, patience and persistence.

In most instances, the first person that you will be in contact with is the technology licensing liaison. Typically, this individual is overworked, underpaid, may have a legal rather than technical background, and is dealing simultaneously with a number of researchers and technologies. The national labs have organizational changes and shifts in priorities, so the person listed on the website may in fact no longer be responsible for the technology. All of this results in slow response times -- and sometimes no response. Email and phone calls might go unanswered for many weeks if not months. Did I mention this is not for the fainthearted?

Once contact is made, gathering all the relevant information from the researcher or licensing executive, including more recent publications and other licenses that might have already been issued will give a clearer picture of the true nature of the technology.

One of the best classification of the technology's commerciable potential has been developed by NASA in the form of a technology readiness level (TRL), which has a simple scale of 1 to 10. It's easy to understand, and is subjective to the extent that the evaluator gets to decide what level a technology is at. Some but not all labs use the TRL scheme to classify their licensable technologies.

Signing an NDA allows you to move the discussion forward, and labs have their own NDAs this is typically non-modifiable. It also allows you to have a more open dialog with the researcher to see if what you are proposing is even feasible. Researchers are invariably optimistic, it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much. What the company considers a prototype and what the lab considers a prototype might differ significantly.

Gaining an understanding of the current state of the technology is crucial in assessing the level of investment and the time it is going to take to commercialize it. Unless assessor is intimately familiar with the particular technology, getting advice from others, talking to the researcher directly and learning about the technology is important to gain a true picture. Readiness assessment takes some skill and is the company's responsibility. It is also important to realize that most technologies from national labs cannot be transferred to foreign manufacturing locations or entities.

If the readiness level is acceptable it's time to move on to the next step, engaging the lab to work with you, not for you.

[This column is the first in a three-part series.]

Mr. Ravishankar is an experienced business leader of technology based companies and the principal of Operational Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in product innovation and operations. He holds engineering and business degrees from MIT. Reach him at g.ravishankar@alum.mit.edu.

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