How can companies make sound R&D decisions when, as in nanoscience, the basic scientific knowledge is exploding faster than conventional management systems can handle? How can knowledge being generated within university research groups be best channeled to industrial firms — and vice versa? These are some of the questions investigated under the NSF Partnership for Innovation (PFI) grant awarded to CIMS in 2004.
One component of the PFI has been the “NanoWorkshops,” designed to facilitate and enrich the engagement between industry and the federallyfunded Nanoscience Centers. There are more than 60 of these centers and they lie at the heart of what has been dubbed the “tsunami” of new knowledge in nanoscience and technology. Under pressure to find commercial applications for this emerging science, the centers are looking to create new spin-offs and partnerships with industry. Industry, in turn, looks to the science for tomorrow’s new products and services.That’s where the CIMS NanoWorkshops come in. Designed to foster “structured and facilitated dialogue” between industry representatives and faculty from the centers, they target the information gap between what the academics prefer to discuss (research results) and what industry needs to learn in order to discern potential business opportunities. As one industry participant explained, it can be difficult to make a real connection to a field of use even after faculty are able to articulate their actual capabilities, which they often have trouble doing.
There have been 10 NanoWorkshops since 2005, concluding with four in Fall 2008 held at the Pennsylvania State University, and jointly with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburg. About 35-40 people participated in each one-day workshop. Following the structured format, teams with roughly equal numbers of researchers and industry members delved into the “unique technical capabilities” presented by the faculty members to, first, generate a range of potential product or service concepts, and, then, sort through and prioritize the broad spectrum of potentially commercial ideas.
Learnings from the NanoWorkshops
The workshops were led by Prof. Angus Kingon, ofBrownUniversity, and ten colleagues from CIMS. Here is his summary of the “lessons” learned:
• Industry clearly needs to engage faculty if it wants to exploit science at an early or upstream stage.
And the faculty definitely need help understanding how to talk to industry, and what industry needs. The workshops seem to be effective as anintervention to improve the faculty understanding and skills in this regard.
• The structured approach definitely improves the dialogue. It focuses the discussion on the middle ground between faculty and industry, namely toward the potential products and services. It is much more efficient than unstructured discussion.
• Faculty found the workshops valuable. The workshops enriched their perspectives on applications and commercial potential, and they generally ended up with a new excitement about potential product ideas, and new ideas for research. Most faculty participants were responsive and enthusiastic about the process and the outcomes
• Faculty researchers viewed the cross-fertilization of ideas between themselves and industry as a very important outcome. Valuable ideas emerged and were often followed up on by direct discussion between individual research groups and companies.
• In addition to the specific ideas which result, the process gives industry representatives a much better comparative perspective on the capabilities of research groups in the centers, and the centers as a whole. The workshops can be a filter to decide which centers and which faculty are likely to be good alliance partners. Jim Kassner, a member of CIMS, and industry consultant, suggests that the workshop also equips the industry representatives with an approach and tools that will be broadly useful for their interaction with universities.
• The center managers also viewed the articulation of the unique technology capabilities as a goodmethod of generating an “inventory” of research within their centers, and of valuing this research.
• The workshop format would very likely benefit companies in other fields. It is applicable to all upstream/emerging science, not just nanoscience.
Realities of Faculty Life
• Despite the positives I have cited, only a subset of the faculty of the Nanoscience Centers view commercialization of their research as a priority. And even for those who do view it as a priority, allocating one-and-a-half days to the process (a faculty preparation workshop precedes the main one) is extremely difficult. This is a reflection of the faculty being rewarded primarily for their research performance, measured by publication in high-quality journals, and contract income (which enables hiring of PhD students and thus research). Very few universities directly reward commercialization, either via explicit metrics and rewards, or implicitly in terms of recognition. Consequently, faculty commit time to commercialization endeavors only if: 1) they are ideologically attracted to the idea of the results of their research being widely applied; 2) they believe that they will gain monetarily via start-up equity or license income; and 3) they believe industry contracts may result. A very few make the connection that understanding product potential and connecting to market needs will actually improve their research programs. Interestingly, a number do so after engaging in the workshop, or other commercialization activity, which means that selling a workshop of this type, and finding an appropriate window of time, remains difficult.
• Dialogue between faculty and industry remains difficult and time-consuming. Workshops of this type require a significant commitment from industry, and there is no guarantee of a match or direct outcomes. Connecting to Markets
As the workshop organizers, we do consider them to have been successful in connecting upstream/emerging science to market needs. Where there was faculty participation, it was clear that the majority recognized that the type of dialogue we engaged in was useful, and the cognitive method and techniques that we used to connect the science to product ideas and then to potential markets was valuable. On the other hand, the engagement was probably too short to significantly change longstanding faculty behavior and activity choices, implying that this type of process would need to be continued in order to see lasting impact within a NanoCenter. As to the industry perspective, we perceive that those industry participants who could discern potential application of product/service ideas that emerged from the workshop to their own businesses were particularly happy with the experience. On the other hand, those who participated with the expectation that they would be able to solve particular problems or challenges they were facing were generally disappointed. (Fortunately, there were not many of these!). The reason for this is that the dialogue is set up to begin with the technology, and move toward general market opportunities. The probability of matching science capability to a very specific, narrow need is statistically small. However, Jim Kassner makes the point that while industry reps may enter with some specific needs at the top of their list, they have a much longer list just below the surface. Almost invariably, when they listened to the descriptions of unique capabilities, they realigned to needs in that longer list. Therefore, few would say they were disappointed. Additionally, we believe that industry could view the NanoWorkshops primarily as an efficient way to quickly evaluate a NanoCenter and the unique capabilities of the emerging research.
Tough but Necessary
In terms of a mechanism to connect upstream science to products/services and market needs, these workshops are only one route, and not the only one, of course. In general, identifying or conceptualizing “breakthrough” products with large business potential based on nanoscience is extremely difficulty, but also very necessary. The NanoWorkshops are not structured to identify a market need, and then work backward to find a nanoscience solution, for example. So in terms of improved practices for creating value from nanoscience, I think the workshops confirmed the need for industry to develop a series of complementary strategies to do this. I’ll be delighted to hear what readers think.
Professor of Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Organizational Studies,