Different kinds of technology dissemination

In many of the projects where I work, we face the challenge of gaining access to publicly funded resources that the private sector finds hard to reach. These technological resources could be in the form of scarce equipment, specialists or even in the form of codified or tacit knowledge. Often, the private sector is not even aware of the technological resources in their location or country.

I often describe three kinds of technology dissemination:

  • Technology development, which is usually project based and involves the development of very specific technological solutions
  • Technology transfer, which is usually based on a contract between the provider and the recipient that specifies pre-conditions, conditions and which equipment, processes and in some cases expertise will be transferred to the recipient
  • Technology extension, which is usually more interactive in nature. A knowledge holder, like a university department, research lab or enterprise support centre, extends their resources to private enterprises in a complementary way.

In my experience of working on the gap between public technological infrastructure and the needs of the enterprises, each of the three forms of technological dissemination works in some contexts and fall short in others.

  • Policymakers and public funders often prefer technology development because it leverages other scientific infrastructure investments at research organisations and universities. From a demand perspective, it is usually only those companies that have sufficient in-house expertise to develop a specification or that can afford to commission a research or development project with a research organisation that can benefit from this approach. I have only come across a handfull of small companies that have been able to commision technology development projects like this. In most cases, the founders of these enterprises had deep expertise in the technological domain, their internal processes, materials and the markets. I am thinking of one case where a small engineering company specilasing in advanced optics commissioned a research project to develop a new control interface for an aircraft.
  • Public bureaucrats often like technology transfer because it leverages research outputs at universities and research labs. Technology transfer requires that careful attention is paid to intellectual property and that recipients are able to absorb and leverage the technology they are gaining access to. I typically try to avoid this kind of work because I have often found that there are huge gaps between how public researchers and private investors value intelectual property. But I also know of many instances where a technology was developed in a university and then transferred to private enterprises. In my experience, there is a huge gap between what researchers in universities and public research organisations work on, and what small enterprises trying to carve out a niche in a smaller domestic market needs.

In my opinion, the importance of both technology development and technology transfer programmes is often over-rated in developing countries.

At the same time, the value of technology extension is often under-rated. Out of concerns that valuable intellectual property might leak out, many researchers, academics or other officials cannot provide assistance or advice to the private sector. While I understand this concern, in my experience, many enterprises are actually searching for somebody to point them in the right direction – they are not always asking for specific technical solutions that would infringe on intellectual property regulations.

Technology extension involves services like:

  • Demonstrating how certain (scarce) technologies work, or showing how scientific and engineering principles can be appled to real world problems
  • Advising companies on how they can improve or optimise their current processes
  • Providing technical problem solving, analytical or diagnostic services
  • Providing access to scarce equipment, software (like design or modelling software) and access to scarce expertise.

What makes technology extension more difficult is that the advice provided must fit the enterprise’s context and capability. For instance, while companies can pay to get their products tested or certified, very few companies have access to a lab or technology centre where they can get design feedback to make their product more compliant or more economical to produce. At the same time, many universities and public research organisations can provide a basic analysis and design feedback service.

A challenge for the private sector is that public research organisations are often like labyrinths. It is hard to know where the expertise, capabilities, or excellence lies in buildings or behind closed doors. Often you cannot even get into these buildings without an invitation and, in some cases, security clearance. Nevertheless, I love wandering the corridors of these organisations and seeing what technologists are working on. Often there are prototypes, half-dismantled instruments or posters adorning the corridors. The people working there can tell the most amazing stories of how they had to solve a problem, make up for a missing bit, or how they discovered that X could be substituted for Y. When I ask them who in the rest of the world knows what they are doing, I am often met with a shrug, and a “nobody is really interested in this”.

When I ask technologists, scientists and engineers in public research organisations who can most benefit from their genius, I am often told that ex-students, former colleagues and their alumni are often the most valuable customers and sources of inspiration. This seems consistent with the notion that the best form of technology transfer is through the mobility of people. It might imply that I have to introduce “technology transfer through human mobility” as a fourth kind of dissemination.

Image credit: The image at the top of this blog is from an optics lab at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA). I took the picture while touring their facilities in March 2020, just a few days before the strict lockdown was announced in South Africa.