Tech Transfer: Bridging the Gap Between the Abstract and Commercial Application

Ask most people to describe how their favorite app or gadget came to be, and you’ll get a version of the garage origin story, where a visionary genius and her team of misfits work all night, fueled by passion and coffee, to bring their idea to life. Sheer force of will and a lucky investor meeting is all it takes to make it, as long as you have the guts. A version like this story is told in the startup myths of tech giants like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook: daring startups that happened to make it big.

Reality, of course, never quite measures up to the hype.

Ideas come to market in a variety of different ways – genius entrepreneur included – but much of the innovation we interact with day-to-day started as a question in an institution. Some are abstract, “How do we measure the temperature of a star?” while some are very specific, “How do we create a camera that fits in a small spacecraft?” And some, as in the case of both of those questions, end up having applications beyond their original purpose. It turns out that measuring star temperature at a distance works well for infrared thermometers and small cameras are great for phones as well as spacecraft.

Bridging the gap between the abstract and specialized questions, and their commercial application is a process known as tech transfer. In addition to thermometers and cameras, tech transfer has also brought us the internet, LASIK, cordless vacuums, and solar power.

The tech transfer process is typically implemented in three parts: design, prototype, and commercialization. In most institutions and government agencies, there is a formalized process for at least some part of that chain. Researchers may have to provide practical justification for budgets, or there may be a liaison office specifically seeking commercial technology applications. The results can be licensing agreements, joint ventures, or even new companies capitalized by public-private partnerships or direct investment.

The practical implications of this process are not just for large organizations on the cutting edges of their field. The Federal government, as well as many state agencies, have established funding and goals to create a pipeline in (and out) for innovative products.

Through programs like SBIR and STTR, they solicit best-in-class technology to solve problems ranging from reducing single-use plastics to better missile telemetry. In 2018, the federal government spent over 71 billion dollars at universities alone, a significant portion of which passed through spin-offs, joint ventures, or other partnerships.

Medium and small businesses, working directly or through an experienced prime contractor, can leverage their specific expertise to identify these tech transfer opportunities and create new markets. Although many of these tech transfer stories start out in a garage, the long term effects allow for endless possibilities. If you would like to learn more about working with an experienced prime contractor, contact us.

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