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Volume 1, issue 5      April 1994


The Obstacles to Technology Transfer

During the late 80's and early 90's after the decline and fall of the Soviet Union the business landscape changed somewhat. Companies that had been built on high profile government defense contracts found that the well was running dry. America's universities had a similar, though not as devastating, experience with this as well. When a fundamental change in the way things are done occurs, such as this particular situation, it is to be expected that there will be a period during which those affected find a way to adjust.

Depending on what happens in the future, technology transfer may prove to be the response to the changes that have happened over the past few years. The phrase 'technology transfer' refers to the development, by universities, of technology which is patented by the university and then marketed. If that sounds a big vague to you, particularly the second part, then you would be right. That is but one of the problems with technology transfer. Others involve legal aspects to regulate technology transfer and the inevitable momentum in society that tries to move in the same old direction while a new idea, in this case technology transfer, is being worked out. I can't go over all the specifics of each problem even if I knew them all, but a description of some of these follows.

One of the first obstacles to be overcome is the one involving the definition of technology transfer. The general idea is there but the specifics have yet to be worked out. Some of the ideas involve licensing an outside company to mass produce the technology developed by the university in question, with the university getting a portion of the revenue generated since it holds the patent. Other ideas involve the university establishing a private company to create new companies to mass produce the new technology. There are still other ideas which are variations on this theme.

Other problems have arisen because of new legal questions that have arisen. It wasn't until 1980 that universities were allowed to profit from federally funded projects. Private companies then licensed that research and went from there. After a short while the universities wanted to try their hand at commercializing the new technology themselves. Enter technology transfer, and the subsequent arguments over conflict of interest and the opposition by those who stand to lose money if technology transfer becomes the way things are done in the future. There have been more than one project killed from these obstacles. Hence, many universities have been shy about implementing technology transfer programs.

There have been other problems with the universities themselves. Many would agree that universities and business tend to do things differently. Universities do not generally have the internal bureaucratic machinery (or perhaps they have too much!) to put a plan into operation and achieve results. This is understandable and should not be criticized, since universities are not around to turn a profit but to turn out highly educated professionals.

Then there is the problem of developing new technologies themselves. Most research yields only an incremental improvement in existing technology. Hence, it will be necessary to 'lump together' a number of technological innovations in order to reap a substantial return on the initial amount expended to bring about the new technology. What is required here is an understanding by those on the commercial end of technology transfer of the way research is conducted and what is reasonable to expect.

After a few years most of the problems will probably be worked out, assuming technology transfer catches on. Whether that happens remains to be seen. What technology transfer represents is a paradigm shift. Those in the computer industry will be familiar with the phrase. Roughly, it refers to a change in people's perceptions regarding how problems are not just solved, but how they are perceived and how their solutions should look. We go through paradigm shifts periodically and in different disciplines. Technology transfer, viewed in this light, is a reaction to a different environment and a potential improvement on that way things are done.


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National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., © 1994. V1 I5.
Editor - Mark Ciotola; Assoc. Editor - A. To; Publisher - Peter Spangler. Contributing writers: Abdoulaye Yansane, Jean Wu, Ri-Xi Liang, Zilian Tang. Officers: Ri-Gui Dalia Liang, Ann Marie Cheng and Mark Ciotola. Subscriptions: 50 reimbursement per issue domestic / 23 plus postage foreign. A matching donation is suggested, but optional. Limited number of free copies available. Mail subscriptions and correspondence to the National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., 601 Van Ness Avenue Suite E3248, San Francisco, CA 94102.