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It has been a cornerstone of scientific research for more than a thousand years and shows no sign of going away. We take a closer look at the process of technology transfer - its roots, evolution and where it is headed.
Technology transfer is the process of developing practical applications for scientific research. While conceptually the activity has been practised for many years, its importance is being truly felt now. The process typically includes identifying new technologies, protecting technologies through patents and copyrights, and forming development and commercialisation strategies such as marketing and licensing to existing private sector companies, or creating new start-up companies based on the technology. The importance of technology transfer can be gauged by its benefits to society:
Technology transfer - the Xerox trip-up
Today, the volume of research has increased exponentially, all over the world. But research alone does not ensure success - many a time it has been accompanied by failure. This has led to increased focus on the technology transfer process. PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre, Inc), formerly known as Xerox PARC, is a research and development company in Palo Alto, California that began as a division of Xerox Corporation.
Xerox has been heavily criticised (particularly by business historians) for failing to properly commercialise and profitably exploit PARC's innovations. A favourite example is the GUI, initially developed at PARC for the Alto and then commercialised as the Xerox Star by the Xerox Systems Development Department. Although very significant in terms of its influence on future systems design, it is deemed a failure because it only sold approximately 25,000 units. It's well-known history that the Xerox management consistently failed to see the potential of many PARC inventions. If Xerox had known the benefits of technology transfer, it could have reaped richer dividends.
Technology transfer: measuring success
Success of the technology transfer process is measured in terms of a number of factors, some of which are economic and some social. The number of patents filed for new inventions by academic and research institutions and the monetary amount paid in different forms to the academic institutions contributing to the technology transfer research are examples of the economic measures; whereas the effect of products created from the technology transfer process on our day-to-day lives is an example of a social measure. Some people also classify the success of technology transfers on numerical and non-numerical grounds. Numerical measures include most of the economic and social measures described above, whereas non-numerical measures are more indirect and related to the recruitment and dismissal policies for academicians at universities and other research institutions.Technology transfer todayThere has been a significant growth in the technology transfer process in recent times. Mostly, the evolution of the process has been assessed using the economic measure of the number of patents filed by universities all over the world. As per the Association of Federal Technology Transfer Executives (AUTM), the number of patents filed within the US has increased by more than 450 per cent in the period between 1980 and 2004. The major reason for the success of the technology transfer process in the US has been the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. As per this Act, universities and research institutions are allowed to file for patents and other intellectual property rights (IPR) to protect their inventions and earn money from IPR institutions. Before this Act, there were no IPRs, and universities and research institutions had to make their inventions public, without any returns on them. Not surprisingly, many companies, universities, and government organisations today have an 'Office of Technology Transfer' dedicated to identifying research results of potential commercial interest, and to develop strategies to exploit them. For instance, a research result may be of interest, but patents are usually only issued for practical processes. Therefore, someone (not necessarily the researchers) must come up with a specific result-oriented, practical process. Another consideration is commercial value - while there are many ways to accomplish nuclear fusion in practice, the ones of commercial interest are those that generate more energy than they require for operation.As a result, the organisations promoting the process of technology transfer are often multidisciplinary, including economists, engineers, lawyers, marketers and scientists. The United States Department of Defence assesses technology maturity using the Technology Readiness Level as part of its technology transfer process. The dynamics of the technology transfer process have attracted some attention in their own right, and there are several societies and journals dedicated to them.
The Indian scenario
In India, the government initially focused on public research, where the emphasis was on striving for self-reliance. As the country had just got its independence, the main focus was on sectors like the military, healthcare and agriculture. For a long time, India pursued a socialist economic policy within a democratic political framework. There was central control, state production and control of private production, and practically no focus on technology transfer. The swing towards the technology transfer sector in India happened in 1991 with the opening up of the Indian economy. The 1991 policies allowed global private investment in research. Since 1991, India has seen 17 years of successive growth in technology transfer, especially in the IT sector, with upward movement in technology applications. The access to global technologies has accelerated 'in-licensing' in several sectors like IT, engineering, chemicals, life science products, and mining and metals. Technology transfer in India today is a combined effort of the public and private sector.Public sector research and technology transfer began with the setting up of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) at Mysore in 1950, to cater to the rural sector. To ensure that the institute's endeavours in technology reach the right user at the right time and in the right way, CFTRI has established the Technology Transfer and Business Development Department (TTBD) as its single technology-window to the outside world. The institute caters to providing specially designed economical packages for the industry. The Centre for Symbiosis of Technology Environment and Management (STEM) was launched in April 2005 at Bangalore with domestic and international support, to stimulate best practices in technology management. It provides institutional and individual memberships. Some areas of focus include: capacity building, networking, international linkages and advocacy. The body has a strong governing council representation. Although the setting up of CFTRI, STEM and other such agencies is a boost from the public sector side to technology transfer in India, their overall contribution has been decreasing.
The need for public-private partnership
While the public sector investment in agricultural research and technology transfer in India continues to rise, the growth rate has been diminishing. With liberalisation, the private sector is expected to fill the gap created by the slow withdrawal of the public sector. In addition, private firms can manage certain activities more efficiently than the public sector - such as commercialising and marketing new varieties in different sectors. India today is being seen by many as an IT superpower. Private sector companies like TCS, Infosys and Wipro have been driving innovation in IT with exports exceeding $ 50 billion. The major catalyst for this innovation was public sector research with the use of Linux technologies. Public research institutions like IISc in Bangalore and the IITs provided the human resources in the form of 60,000 computer graduates. However, private sector research in agriculture is still quite inadequate and policy initiatives, including those ensuring further liberalisation and continued support for public research and competition policy are required to encourage it. Moreover, joint ventures in the private sector are also needed to stimulate technology transfer. Indian private companies need a strong licensing track record as this is known to accelerate research investment. The myth that technology sourcing will limit in-country capability needs to be shattered, and risk-averse mindsets need to be changed. Lastly, there is a strong need for public-private sector partnership as a strategy to overcome resource constraints in public and private systems.Technology transfer - the academic side Universities and research institutions also stand to benefit from the technology transfer process. The revenues realised from licensing by universities and research institutions through the technology transfer process are disbursed among the academic departments that contribute directly to the research. Some part of the revenues may also go to the university to improve the facilities and infrastructure used for research.There is growing recognition within academia and industry that university technology transfer efforts afford significant opportunities to many communities:
The future of technology transfer
The technology transfer process is currently on the rise and it is forecast that the revenue generated in the immediate future from the licensing of inventions and selling of technology transfer products would total more than a billion dollars. Even a partial investment of this amount of money would play a regenerative role, giving rise to more technology transfer companies and aiding the upgradation of research facilities in universities and academic institutions. India promises to be among the major out-licensing destinations, where the focus will be on cutting-edge research in telecom, aerospace, information technology applications, human health, biotechnology and natural resource management. India will also be looking towards global collaborative research with partners in the US. Public research will complement private research with resources and basic research capabilities, and technology transfer will be augmented through responsive, accountable technology management organs, where global investment will drive Indian research for global good.
Technology Transfer, the Archimedes way!
The first case of technology transfer dates back to the times of the Greek philosopher Archimedes (287 BC - 212 BC), who was noted for applying science to practical problems. He was a relative of the Hiero monarchy, which was the ruling family of Syracuse, a sea-port kingdom. Archimedes' uncle commissioned him to design and build a new class of ships for his navy, a project crucial for the preservation of the ruling class in Syracuse. He built a huge ship named Syracusia, after the kingdom's name. Its construction caused a sensation in the Greek world. Among some of his later inventions, which often happened by chance, was the Archimedes screw, which is still used to lift water to higher levels for irrigation.