Early in 2005 a research team from North Carolina State University began working with National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) nanoscience centers to wrestle with a tough problem: how to efficiently and effectively connect emerging nanoscale science and technology (NS&T) developments with the commercial marketplace.
As early as 2001 this had become an important issue because of high expectations created by publicity that surrounded the launch of the program. For example, some sources predicted “trillions of dollars per year in new product sales within 10-15 years,” and “two million new jobs in nanotech by 2015.” Clearly this would be a major challenge to our innovation system and to those of us who study and teach about innovation management. Now, five years later, the NCSU team has presented a series of experimental workshops to10 federallyfunded nanoscience centers to help address this problem (see “CIMS NanoWorkshops” report, above). At this point, we have developed a set of tools and processes that have helped these centers improve the dialogue between university scientists and their industrial counterparts as they search for an “impedance match” between the forces that characterize their respective working cultures. The purpose of this note is to briefly explain the content of these workshops, how they work, and to suggest some next steps. The core concept behind the “experiment” evolved from a two-semester graduate “practicum” called the “TEC” (Technology Evaluation and Commercialization) program. It had been developed “on paper” in 1995 with the help of a National Science
Foundation grant, and was implemented as a two-course sequence on campus in 1997, and it is ongoing. In a nutshell, these courses focus on new technical ideas, often generated by an academic research scientist or engineer, that are evaluated for commercial potential using a structured process called “The TEC Algorithm.” If the ideas prove promising, they are then subjected to an intensive business planning exercise. Over the past 10 years, the TEC program has been a launching pad for more than 90 new business startups, attracted more than $170 million in venture capital, and has created over 350 new jobs in theRaleigh,North Carolina, area and beyond. In 1999, the TEC algorithm and practicum were adapted to the corporate context, and have been taught in several foreign countries.
The NNI Experiment
When considering the emerging science/NNI context, the NCSU team recognized from the outset that the “rapidly emerging” nature of NS&T, the global competitiveness of the field, it’s multi-disciplinary nature, and the information “explosion” it was creating, made it much different than the “regular” entrepreneurial process described above. So it was evident that a direct application of the TEC Algorithm wasn’t likely to be the answer. But could something analogous to it be created further upstream in the science discovery process? Could academic and industrial scientists engage in a pre-commercial dialogue about “possibilities” that would be beneficial to both without violating the principles of either? If so, perhaps commercial innovation issues might be addressed earlier in the innovation cycle, thus reducing overall cycle time, and increasing the yield from federally-funded NS&T investments. These are the questions that the experimental workshops were designed to address. We began the experiments atPennState’s Center for Nanoscale Science in July 2005.
Elements of the Workshops
1. Pre-Workshop work: After initial interviews with the center director, a bibliometric profile of the center’s areas of scientific and technical specialization is provided to the center in advance of the workshop. The profile identifies contributions to the scientific literature in these fields relative to other contributors, and various applications of “technology mining” techniques are applied to the relevant data. This assessment is available through a subcontract between CIMS/NCSU and Prof. (Emeritus) Alan Porter of TPAC at Georgia Institute of Technology. This pre-work enables the NCSU team to customize the workshops to the specialties, needs and interests of the centers.
2. A mini-workshop detailing elements of the TEC algorithm that are applicable to the NNI/emerging sciences is provided for the center’s research staff. Emphasis is on developing and understanding of concepts and thought processes necessary for effective exchanges of information with industrial partners at early stages of scientific investigation. This element is presented by Brown University Prof. Angus Kingon.
3. A practicum focused on “live cases” of interest to center research staff and industrial partners is facilitated by a team of NCSU faculty members in breakout group settings. These sessions employ group learning techniques and provide coaching on use of concepts and terminology appropriate to the upstream, pre-commercial context of emerging S&T plus mutual expressions of interest in “real” ideas.
4. A seminar on specialized roles necessary for effective upstream information exchanges and the development of trust is the fourth element. It emphasizes the functions of “boundary spanners” and the skill sets needed for effective performance of this role. This session was developed and presented by NCSU Prof. Lynda Aiman-Smith.
Here are some of the lessons our faculty gleaned from the workshops (see “CIMS NanoWorkshops” for more learnings):
• Industry clearly needs to engage faculty if it wants to exploit science at an early/upstream stage; faculty definitely needs help in understanding how to talk to industry about industry needs.
• Workshops are much more efficient than unstructured discussions in promoting understanding of the “middle ground” between faculty interests and business needs.
• Faculty scientists find that the workshops enrich their perspectives on applications and commercial potential, and create excitement about new ideas for research.
• Valuable ideas emerged from the facilitated workshops that were often followed-up by direct discussions between research groups and companies.
• Industry participants found that the workshops provided a good basis for comparing the capabilities of different centers and for forming judgments about selecting future alliance partners.
• Center directors learned a great deal about the uniqueness of their various capabilities, which helped in valuing their intellectual assets relative to those of other contributors.
Extending the Dialogue
The NCSU/CIMS team has conducted both individual and multi-center workshops involving 10 nanoscience centers in the past four years.The work was made possible through grant # 0438684 from the National Science Foundation’s Partnership for Innovation (PFI) program to CIMS, working with the Industrial Research Institute.
In the future, CIMS hopes to generalize the techniques developed in these workshops to any emerging technology. For further information, please email me at: email@example.com