A strong system to commercialize research is one of the great advantages available to American scientists and inventors. The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, included a clause for the creation and operation of a patent office so that inventors could control their intellectual property and work with the private sector to create great products and services. This astounding system produced effective vaccines for Covid-19 less than one year after the virus first appeared.
The commercialization of research conducted by scientists occurs through a process called technology transfer. Scientists, often based at universities, academic hospitals and private research labs, conduct scientific research. Traditionally, they will publish the findings of their research in prestigious journals, secure more grant funding and continue on. But a brave few will also see something else—a possible new product or service down the line borne out of their life’s work. If you are such as scientist, it is important to contact your institutions’ technology transfer or venture management office—even if you are not sure what the product is.
The process of commercialization takes time. While scientists should continue to publish their research results, they should also reach out to their technology transfer office, in parallel, to begin applying for patents and understanding the regulatory approval process, particularly in sectors like medicine, agriculture and energy. According to research by David Hsu of the Wharton School and Matt Marx of Cornell University, about 74% of academic discoveries that translated into products were both awarded patents and featured in academic journals. According to William Shaw, senior director of Technology Transfer and Industry Collaboration at Tufts University “here at Tufts, our mission is to bring together the various stakeholders needed to see an idea leave the lab and reach the market. Assembling the right team will ultimately lead to the highest likelihood of successfully reaching the market.”
Scientists must then choose among two distinct paths to market. With help from the technology transfer office, they can choose to license their research innovations to private companies and hope for the best. In some cases, such as the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine based on research at Vanderbilt University, the result can help save the world. Many times, however, a company will decide to license an innovation but choose not to further develop it into a product or service. There are many business reasons for this, but it leaves the scientist and their academic institution frustrated.
For researchers who follow the entrepreneurial path, the U.S. governments’ Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs provide early-stage funding to translate research from lab to market, or bench to bedside if you are in medicine. The scientist’s institution, or the city in which they are based, will also have entrepreneurship accelerators where the scientist can learn the basics of business and entrepreneurship, such as business plan development, communications (pitch) and develop key operational milestones in parallel to their scientific research milestones. For scientists, idea validation comes in two stages. First, the science must work, and that often takes it own time. The measure of scientific idea validation is publication in journals and patents. Business validation will be measured by the scientist’s ability to secure private investors or corporate partnerships. It is not necessarily measured by customer response or sales, because the research may not make it to the market for many years.
If you have any doubt about the impact that academic research scientists have on products in the market, consider that, according to research by Bentley College, since 2010 the FDA has approved 356 new cancer drugs. 100% of these new drugs started with NIH research grants to academic scientists.
For non-academic inventors, there is a parallel system for idea validation. There are groups like Invent Helps that provide legal services to inventors to start companies and file patent applications. Across America, there are now over 3,000 entrepreneurship programs that inventors and entrepreneurs can participate in. These include university-based entrepreneurship programs, startup accelerators like Y Combinator and MassChallenge, regional economic development initiatives like Jumpstart Ohio, and local SCORE or Small Business Development Centers to support local business owners. For entrepreneurs just starting out without the support of a large university or hospital, these programs provide importance assistance with business planning, operations and the administration of your business. The accelerator programs will also help you validate the idea through proof of concept strategies, outreach to potential customers for feedback and practice, and securing meetings with potential investors, funders and corporate partners.
While the United States has the most robust and comprehensive system for idea validation and commercialization, the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Research institutions worldwide are establishing tech transfer operations, and there are over 1,000 startup accelerators outside the United States helping launch high-growth businesses. It’s an exciting time to move your idea forward!
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