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Technology Transfer: A Contact Sport

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Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

It is fall and football season in the United States. We are still playing soccer too–football everywhere else–but that is another story. American football has long been called a contact sport, meaning the players intentionally collide to move the ball toward the goal line. However, it remains a far cry from rugby, which seems indistinguishable from unarmed combat to my untrained eye.

How, one may wonder, does football relate to technology transfer? For that matter, what do I mean by the phrase technology transfer itself? There are broader definitions, but for the sake of discussion, let’s define technology transfer as the mechanism via which research ideas are communicated to and adopted by companies and their product groups.

The success or failure of technology transfer depends on many factors, from the personalities and skills of the people involved, through the timing and appropriateness of the offering, to the risks and costs associated with the new idea. No single mechanism is guaranteed to succeed, though there are many mechanisms that are likely to fail.

Sharing the Love

Opening the technology transfer conversation with a product group by disparaging the current product or questioning the intelligence of the developers is unlikely to create a receptive audience for one’s brilliant research result, no matter how scintillating and erudite the subsequent description may be. Nor will woeful obliviousness to the history that led to the current product design, for it is important to understand context and competition. Finally, neither will bad timing. Reporting a better way to engineer a product just before it is finished will accomplish nothing other than depressing the product team, though it may provide guidance for the next product generation.

One needs to build a long-term, productive and positive relationship between research and product development. It is about creating mutual benefit, sharing the love.

On the positive side, I have observed a continuum of mechanisms that facilitate the transfer of ideas. None is universally successful in isolation, and even in aggregate they may fail. However, the set is far more powerful than the elements, and all can benefit from true contact sport engagement.

Papers. These are the stock and trade of researchers, whether in academia or in government or corporate research laboratories. Yes, members of many product groups read research papers, but an abstract idea, even with supporting experimental data, is rarely the catalyst for uptake of a new idea. A well-written paper does, however, provide the technical details needed when an idea is ultimately adopted.

Demonstrations. These are the “science fair” instantiations of ideas, the early instances that are little more than mockups of the idea. They work on limited data, are constructed using laboratory rather than product components, and they are unreliable at best. However, their virtue is in allowing non-researchers to see and experience the idea in concrete form. Often, seeing really is believing, and a prototype can be convincing in ways that a paper is not.

Prototypes. Prototypes are the next stage, where the demonstration is sufficiently robust that it can be used routinely by individuals and groups other than the creators. The robustness allows product groups and developers to test the idea in more realistic conditions and contexts, and see how it fares relative to existing technologies.

Near Products.  Near products are products in all but name, suitable for shipment with little more than cosmetic changes. Creating a near product can be effective if the product team is interested and willing but understaffed, or if they lack the specific technical skills needed to create a product quality instance of the idea.

Contact Engagement

Papers, demonstrations, prototypes, and near products help, and they may sometimes be sufficient to transfer an idea into a product. However, they are pale shadows of the true contact sports, either direct embedding with the product team or long-term engagement and partnership. In the embedding model, researchers become members of the product team, working side by side on the product in the same environment as the product developers. Because the utility of so many new ideas depend on culture and context–things rarely written down–as well as personal trust and connections, contact engagement is often the most successful approach.

Remember, game plans, no matter how elaborate, rarely work without modification. The players on the field innovate and adapt. Technology transfer is a contact sport. It can be contentious at times, but the rewards for successful transfers are enormous, both in a sense of personal accomplishment and pride and in the long-term success of the companies involved.


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