The science of tech transfer
Technology-based innovation programs must deliver top performance in times of digital transformation: concepts, prototypes, test and development cycles must deliver usable results faster than ever. For technology transfer from science, a methodically systematized bridge to real-world application scenarios and a new transfer culture could be the answer to this transformation pressure. We spoke with Peter Keinz, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and partner of Fraunhofer Venture, about ways to further develop technology transfer.
Peter, you have accompanied many transfer projects as a coach and consultant in recent years. How do you assess the market potential of Fraunhofer technologies in general?
Very high. The Fraunhofer Institutes are active in almost all technological fields of the future, often even setting the technological pace. For me as a researcher and coach for technology competence leveraging, roughly translated as the systematic bridging between science and application, Fraunhofer is one of the most exciting institutions for transfer projects with this enormous range of technologies. For almost every challenge from industry, there seem to be possibilities for new technological solutions in this pool. However, scouting, finding existing technologies and solution competencies for existing problems, remains a special challenge.
You yourself have developed a systematic method for technology transfer and work with it for several large scientific institutions. How do you apply the TCL method at AHEAD and what does it do for scientists and institutes?
The TCL method is a systematized method for finding new application areas for existing technologies through analysis, reflection, association and creative thinking. Since this matching of problems and possible solutions is one of the absolute fundamentals of spin-offs or licensing partnerships, we use it primarily in the early stages of business model development, for example in the AHEAD program.
With this method, together with the teams of scientists, we can on the one hand multiply the range of possible applications and on the other hand provide an initial proof-of-concept for the existing hypotheses on applicability. The teams usually learn very quickly that the market offers much more and usually better opportunities for technology exploitation than had been assumed beforehand.
This is also the advantage for the institutes as IP owners: with a precise analysis of the possible fields of application, the value of the existing IP naturally grows. I have the impression that because of the incomplete spectrum of possible applications, IP from research is often drastically undervalued. This potential analysis therefore also increases the market value of existing technologies and patents, and also enables institutes to switch from rather reactive technology management to proactive technology exploitation in identified application opportunities.
How exactly do you handle this in the AHEAD program? What do the teams experience with your methodology?
We guide teams with spin-off or licensing projects through four steps from technology and market hypothesis to market entry with a validated product for real-world applications.
The first step of this bridge building has to be done by the scientists themselves with our guidance: Leave the familiar tech perspective, the "comfort zone" for scientists, and systematically develop real-world solutions to existing challenges, in other words, virtually reverse the tried-and-true view: If you want to be commercially successful, you have to leave your tech parameters, tech conceptual worlds and tech priorities and be able to reflect on your own work through the eyes of potential users. This first feat of strength is not easy for many, but it acts as an initial spark: Many teams then get into a real flow for further development.
In a second step, additional target groups, markets and use cases are generated using creative methods and crowdsourcing. In this way, we develop a pool of possible applications from which to select. It is not uncommon for the target markets to change fundamentally here, because more interesting, previously unconsidered application fields can be identified.
Competing technologies and solution approaches must then be analyzed and evaluated. The most technologically advanced solution does not always bring the greatest benefits to potential customers. In a fourth step, we support the teams in entering the market. However, the focus of our method is on the early phase of solution development, where the course is set for the later product.
You are an expert on the European tech and research scene. What can organizations and institutes do to make technology transfer the "new normal"?
I think Fraunhofer is already very well positioned in this respect compared to the rest of Europe and, for me, is one of the best practices in Europe. However, if you look at the potential of existing technologies that I mentioned, there are still many untapped treasures. Transfer thinking as the "new normal" has not yet arrived everywhere, and even among the successful transfer pioneers there is of course room for improvement. In the USA, for example, most research projects are also designed with a view to possible commercialization. Possible transfer is part of the scientific culture and is taken for granted at all hierarchical levels, from management to small projects. Incentives, reputational gains and thinking as scientists and entrepreneurs are part of this very application-oriented research culture. In Europe, we still need to develop this mentality further, especially in the cost-intensive, long-term high-tech sector. The framework conditions, such as simplified administration or a well-developed venture capital scene for deeptech, can certainly also be improved.
For the scientists themselves, I can only recommend here: Try out yourselves and your technology. There are many straightforward opportunities, especially at Fraunhofer with AHEAD, to test the market potential of a technology and your own entrepreneurial potential and to acquire the mindset of an entrepreneur yourself.
Peter, thank you very much for your time and the exciting insights into the "science of TechTransfer".
Want to learn more about the TCL method or apply it to your idea right away? Take part in our technology transfer program AHEAD.