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Cobblers Elves are Hard at Work Shaping our Future

Long gone are the large R&D infrastructures vertically integrated within large companies: ah, the good ol’ days of Bell Labs, Kodak, and Xerox.  Well we innovative Americans don’t typically sit on our hands and a new reality is coalescing amongst our free market forces.  Successful large companies know they can’t survive without commercializing new products/services and are quite aware of the need for upstream R&D to feed those innovations.  The fact remains that most large companies actually still do a significant amount of R&D, the difference is that their in-house investments have shifted more toward the “Development” the right in the R&D continuum.  Market forces have caused large companies to renounce the inefficiency inherent in the trial and errors of early research.  Global competition and quarterly statements throttle appetites to bear the needed time and cost of multiple failed projects per successful innovation.

The term, open innovation, coined by Henry Chesbrough in 2003 describes the scouting of technologies outside the company perimeters to license, acquire or spin in.  Many companies have engaged in these activities for decades – Bayh Dole and other technology transfer legislation stimulated that activity.  However, technologies don’t meander on their own volition from the benches of universities, federal labs and small companies into the large integrator corporations.  Personalities with vision, energy, and technical fluency are the catalysts for the matching, connections, and ultimately the transactions that move the know-how from the bench to industry and economic benefit.  Some companies are more adept at the process and open to partnering than others.  Proctor and Gamble was a pioneer in the consumer products industry.  Department of Defense behemoths: Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, BAE, Boeing, Raytheon recognize that they can’t come up with all the ideas internally and certainly can’t de-riskall the thousands of fragile technologies that will ultimately contribute to their large platforms.  They routinely seek out SBIR awards for technologies to incorporate into their large platforms, for example.

By now you recognize that nothing I am highlighting here is new.  What I really wanted to share is the unique approach I saw at the BASF Technology Scouting event in the Nation’s Capital  a few weeks ago. The 40+ tech scouts from BASF had aggregated their strategic visions and communicated these to: universities, federal labs and small technology companies (the latter by way of their investors).  On the day of the event, the BASF folks gave a short 15 minute welcome and then sat down to listen to what technology providers had to say and offer.  This turned the typical networking event on its head.  It put the solutions on the fore and the folks that typically have to wind their way through corporate labyrinths to peddle their technical prowess had an audience with relevant representatives aware of their corporate needs and in control of connecting the dots.  The full day was dedicated to technology providers – the elves in my little allegory here - introducing their solutions not in a hurried elevator pace, but in the context of what their capabilities could bring to bear on BASF problems.  There were no frosty debates with anyone looking for incomplete marketing plans.  Rather it was a large room full of people who recognized that only together could the two groups forge innovations from the visions of market need and technical possibilities.  It was quite remarkable to witness the openness of folks asking questions without trepidation and others sharing their work and, importantly network to amplify any one’s ability to get their job done.  It felt patriotic to see our hard-earned tax dollars that were invested in early R&D at university campuses, federal labs and small businesses get converted into technologies that will be accelerated through US supply chains into the market.  The economy and our standard of living thrives with continually grazing on the creative, viable outputs of our science and engineering enterprises.

In order for technologies to mature from demonstration through prototyping, manufacturability and scale-up, resources within MEP Centers efficiently support the transitioning and the integration into US supply chains.  Such services are an essential part of the technology acceleration ecosystem.  In other words, shoes don’t make themselves and cobblers often need a village of elves!

About the author

Clara Asmail

Clara Asmail develops new approaches to support small R&D and manufacturing businesses with resources to commercialize technologies. Her 25+ year career at NIST includes managing the SBIR Program and Technology Transfer, and leader of optical scatterometry research projects. One of her inventions is the highest royalty bearing license at the NIST Labs.

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Well said. I’ve heard today’s environment for technology commercialization described as a no-man’s land. The approach you witnessed seems to have the benefit of being able to bring together people who “understand the visions of market need with those that understand the technical possibilities and constraints with getting a product to market. working synergisticaly, thsi approach includes everything from the actions needed to move capital into the technology, to developing the new manufacturing methods and processes, to the mundane transactions that make up sales of products. With regard to a roles for MEP, I recall that Greg Tassey once talked about production as the significant mediator between the innovation and the products that come from those innovations.
The 40+ tech scouts from BASF had aggregated their strategic visions and their visions are really very interesting..
Yes such services are very important part in technology acceleration ecosystem.

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