Tech Transfer: America’s Best Secret?
When asked what I do as a consultant, I tell people I work in technology transfer and commercialization. Mostly, that gets me a polite smile and a quizzical look. It‘s a field unfamiliar to many.
Few traditional educational programs include references to technology transfer. Exceptions include curricula for lawyers who want to specialize in intellectual property law. Such attorneys also commonly have familiarity with or degrees in biotechnology, chemistry, computers or other hard sciences. By definition, tech transfer refers to licensing patented technologies for further development. Patented inventions and discoveries owned by universities, federal agencies or companies are licensed by entrepreneurs or other established companies to develop new or improved products and services for the marketplace.
Technology transfer has actually been around in one form or another for almost half a century, and even longer, in the cases of NASA and the USDA. It was written into the 1958 Space Act, which established NASA as a government agency. The thought was (and remains) that taxpayers funded the programs that led us to land on the moon, launch satellites, and build a space station. The discoveries and inventions by NASA scientists should, therefore, be made available to “the people” (or more precisely, to business and industry) for additional commercial development, and thence to the benefit of all citizens.
NASA widely publicizes its inventions and discoveries in magazines such as Spinoffand Tech Briefs, on web-based portals, at scientific and industry conferences, and through demonstrations at NASA field centers and laboratories.
Similarly, the US Department of Agriculture, through its research and extension services, has long made its research, inventions, and discoveries available to citizens through educational programs, on-site field demonstrations of inventions or new practices, and publications.
Most federal agencies and laboratories promote awareness of patented technologies in hopes that entrepreneurs and companies will get excited and negotiate patent licenses and further develop the discoveries. The current exponential growth in multiple technologies means more and more discoveries and inventions are “on the shelf” ready to be catapulted into marketplace game-changers. Interested in browsing patent portfolios? See what catches your eye in my previous post, Federal Labs: Your Technology Treasury.
Many of the products you use every day were invented or discovered at a university or federal lab. Flame resistant fabrics, key components of your smart phone, weather radar and forecasts, drugs to combat cancer and other illnesses, inexpensive home sensors that warn of carbon monoxide leaks, and better-performing solar panels are but a tiny fraction of the benefits of the transfer of technologies from laboratories into the market.
Today, “technology transfer and commercialization” encompasses a broad range of activities and has evolved into a profession with its own certification processes, professional societies, publications, conferences, meetings, and specialized lingo. Engineers, scientists, attorneys, researchers, writers, educators, managers, serial CEOs, business owners, techno-entrepreneurs and others in deal-making roles populate much of the profession today. Check out www.autm.org and www.federallabs.org for great introductions into technology transfer.